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How a Spanish post-doc brings her expertise in chemistry to Leiden genetics

Having a bachelor's, a master's and a PhD in Chemistry, Elena Sánchez López shifted to a more biological field of research for her postdoc. She completed all her studies at the University of Alcala, in Spain, before applying for a LEaDing fellowship at Leiden University, a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Cofund programme in which the universities of Rotterdam, Leiden and Delft and the two academic medical centers in Rotterdam and Leiden collaborate.

This article also appeared in the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities magazine.

In June 2018, Sánchez López' research proposal was accepted: a prestigious Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellowship from the LEaDing Fellows programme enabled her to come to Leiden for a two-year period, working in Professor Dorien Peters’ research group. ‘When I received the good news from LUMC, I was so happy,’ she said. ‘My post-doc position is at Human Genetics, which was new for me. But I’ve  had great support from colleagues at LUMC and my supervisors. That really helps you get off to a good start when you arrive here as a post-doc.’

Understanding polycystic kidney disease 

Sánchez-López' research focuses on studying the way disease changes metabolites. ‘When a person has an illness, you can study what metabolites are related to that disorder. These molecules can act as biomarkers, which can help with diagnosis, predicting a particular disease or giving information on the effectiveness of different treatments. 

'The aim of my project is to understand the mechanisms of polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a genetic disorder that causes large cysts to develop in the kidneys. I mainly focus on understanding how certain metabolites are altered in mouse models, in order to identify the metabolic pathways that are affected.

‘To date, there is no effective cure for this disease, which in most cases results in transplantation or dialysis. I hope my study can tribute to finding an effective medicine or cure, as well as locating a biomarker to predict the likelihood of an individual getting this disease, so that preventive measures can be taken.’

Elena Sánchez López in the lab of the Human Genetics department at the LUMC.
Elena Sánchez López: 'I bring my knowledge of analytical chemistry to the Human Genetics department.'

Mutual advantages

The LEaDing Fellows programme is an opportunity for Sánchez-López to broaden her personal horizons at the same time as allowing her to invest in her career development. ‘My background is in chemistry, so working in the field of molecular biology is rather different. Not only am I broadening my scope, which I’m finding both useful and interesting, but I also bring analytical chemistry knowledge and expertise to this research group within the Human Genetics department. I am very grateful to be working closely together with the LUMC Nephrology department; they give me a lot of support, as well as giving me access to patient data and urine samples, to correlate the data obtained in the mouse models with patients, for example.’ 

In order to study PKD further, Elena also planned a collaboration with OcellO, a biotech company on the Leiden Bioscience Park, adjacent to the LUMC. ‘They have a unique model for studying polycystic kidney disease based on 3D cell samples, so that I can study the mechanisms underlying the disease both in vitro and in vivo. Unfortunately, the corona crisis got in the way of this bit of ''fieldwork''. I've developed a method to accurately measure these samples; now I have to wait to see when we can take the next step with real samples.’ 

Kaleidoscope of data

Thankfully, corona has not caused Sánchez López too much delay. ‘My contract is for two years; it comes to an end in November 2020. As a lot of my work is data analysis, I have an enormous kaleidoscope of data to unravel. I always try to stay positive. I guess that’s a personal trait that a post-doc needs to have.’

‘If something doesn’t go according plan, you have to be resilient. And a good planner: while focusing on your research, you also have to stay alert for future funding options and faculty positions. You have to play all sides of the court. Earlier this year, I put in a proposal for a VENI grant. But due to corona, this process, too, is delayed. I’m hoping I’ll get a decision before my contract expires.’ 

Elena Sánchez-López's project was part-funded via the H2020 Marie Sklodowska Curie-COFUND programme under contract number 707404.

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