Andrea Quezada
(Photo: Courtesy)

While Andrea Quezada was in the middle of her postdoctoral studies in Portugal, at the University of Lisbon Faculty of Sciences, a virus began to spread among the world population until it became a pandemic. This Mexican woman answered the call for volunteers to combat the Covid-19 disease.

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Extra effort

“I received an email informing me that I could be a volunteer. I didn’t hesitate. This is an area where I can make a contribution too. These are processes that I commonly do in the laboratory,” says Quezada in an interview with Tec Review from Lisbon.

For Andrea, this is an extra effort. This is the last year she’ll have the support of the National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt) to continue her studies. Her goal is to unravel the mysteries of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

“Ever since I was an undergraduate, I’ve spent my time studying proteins. They’re very important macromolecules because they deal with practically all the chemical reactions in our bodies. For my doctorate, I specialized in protein aggregation for various diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,” says Quezada.

Getting to know the Mexican woman who’s fighting Covid

The specialist whose time is running out. Her postdoctoral fellowship ends in October. Quezada divides her day between attending her research and fighting against Covid-19. But she takes it as a challenge to help in a historic challenge for humanity.

“The University of Lisbon decided to invest in purchasing all the necessary equipment to set up a safety level 3 laboratory. When they required volunteers, it seemed like an excellent opportunity that would be consistent with my ideas. I try not to think individually, but to think collectively. In this way, I can contribute with what I am doing every day,” she says.

Her work consists of accessing the virus in its inactive phase to extract its genetic material. In her area, she and a female colleague take care of this process. The material is then passed on to other people who are in charge of quantifying it.

Women that work

In that laboratory, 69% of the people who work on the diagnosis of Covid-19 are women. Although the invitation was general, the female scientists in that research center provided the most support in the fight against the pandemic. Worldwide, women make up 70% of the workforce in the health sector, according to the World Health Organization.

As a volunteer, she works to detect cases of the new coronavirus to prevent an upturn in Portugal. The Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Lisbon is involved with the strategy. Thanks to production using local products, a low-cost diagnostic kit was developed there.

While in Mexico an RT-qPCR type test (with a high degree of reliability) can cost around 4,000 pesos, in Portugal the cost is 30 euros. This is the equivalent of approximately 770 pesos.

Quezada is working on analyzing the virus responsible for this pandemic and is under pressure to deliver research progress on proteins. Due to the quarantine, the school where she was studying remained closed. She’s racing against time to recover three months of lab work.

Obstacles to studying the brain

To continue her studies in Lisbon, the chemist must find a source of funding for her work.

The PhD student, part of the @MexiCiencia group, analyzes the tau protein (a protein that is involved in Alzheimer’s disease) and another protein, the huntingtin, which is related to Huntington’s disease.

The problem with these proteins is that they form clusters in the brain that affect the functioning of cells and cause them to die. Quezada explains that while she was pursuing her doctorate at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), she made a model that explained the time in which these proteins aggregated with cells in the brain. She did all this from test tubes.

Through the Scientific Network on the Structure, Function and Evolution of Proteins, Quezada met contacts with the same interests. That led her to discover that high-resolution microscopy studies are done in Portugal.

“I’m studying the aggregation of proteins, but now in cells. I’m one step further. That’s why I am interested in this postdoctoral stay. I went from theory, to test tubes, to seeing it in the cell,” explains the chemist.

As we age, proteins begin to accumulate. In some cases they are synthesized and discarded, but by accumulating in the brain they can cause the development of Alzheimer’s.

“In this pathology, the most challenging thing is that we don’t know many things about the functioning of the brain. I’m working on a model cell, which is an established commercial cell line,” explains the PhD student.

“You buy these cells and grow them every day. You feed them, they grow, you can freeze them and save them for later. It’s not exactly a neuron, but it gives us information. Many of our cellular processes are the same in all our cells, but these are easier to cultivate and work with,” adds Quezada, as she discusses the advantages of the research that she is currently carrying out.

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