San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Disease research takes top science prize

A biochemist searching for new ways to fight tuberculosis, and a microbiologist identifying molecular markers on genes to fine-tune treatment for leukemia patients are the winners of the 2011 Clodomiro Picado Twight National Science and Technology Awards.

Carlos Santamaría, whose work on molecular markers at the National Children’s Hospital in San José will help doctors identify personalized treatments for leukemia patients, accepted the science award at the Science and Technology Ministry Monday morning. 

Pablo Sobrado’s study of enzymes that execute critical functions in the cells of infectious diseases or parasites will allow the creation of medicines to block those enzymes, thereby helping fight off infection. He joined the awards ceremony via video to accept the technology award, from his U.S. office at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

“Today we are witnessing the importance of public policies in Costa Rica that support higher education, research and innovation,” said Science and Technology Minister Alejandro Cruz. “Two Costa Ricans, one working at Virginia Tech, and one working in Spain and Costa Rica at the National Children’s Hospital, are receiving these prizes because of their work for the welfare of the people, for the progress of medicine and the knowledge of how to improve the quality of life for our population.”

Santamaría explained that his studies of molecular markers in the genes of leukemia patients can help doctors avoid putting patients through unnecessary treatments by identifying if they are suffering a highly aggressive form of the disease requiring more rigorous treatment. Patients with less aggressive versions of the blood cancer would not have to be subject to the highest levels of chemotherapy, which can have painful side-effects. Personalized treatments, he explained, can improve the quality of life of leukemia patients.

“When we encounter a molecular marker that we know implies a good or bad prognosis for leukemia, we can recommend a specific type of chemotherapy, whether it be standard or high-risk,” Santamaría said. “Normally it is possible to approximate a patient’s survival time with a specific therapy. By identifying molecular markers and thereby having a prognosis of the type of leukemia [the patient has], it is possible to recommend a specific therapy to help prevent relapse and therefore improve the quality of life and patient survival.”

Science Prize 2

Science and Technology Minister Alejandro Cruz announced the winners of the 2011 National Science and Technology Awards on Monday.

Alberto Font

Sobrado’s studies in Virginia focus on enzymes that tropical diseases such as Chagas disease and leishmaniasis – both caused by parasites – use to help the parasites biosynthesize sugar in the human body and foment infection. Sobrado, with the help of Costa Rican students who traveled to work in his lab, also identified molecules that bacterial infections – such as the bacteria that cause tuberculosis – use to acquire iron, which they need to grow and spread infection. 

Sobrado and his team developed ways to deploy inhibitors to block the sugar-producing enzymes in parasitic infections and the iron-grabbing molecules in bacterial infections, which can lead to medicines tailored to fighting these diseases.

“I conduct my laboratory with the final goal of benefitting human health,” Sobrado said from his office in Virginia. “The Costa Rican students have a lot of desire to learn and advance in their careers. At first it is hard for them to adjust to the [new] location and the language, but they have played out brilliantly.”

Sobrado mentioned the Costa Rican students Ana Lisa Valenciano in the parasite studies and Daniel Ávila in the bacterial studies. 

The Clodomiro Picado Twight National Science and Technology Awards were founded in 1976 and are awarded annually by the ministries of science and technology, and culture and youth.

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