(July 9, 2019) -- UTSA neuroscience researcher Vanesa Nieto Estévez, Ph.D. has been awarded a one-year Postdoctoral Research Fellowship from the American Epilepsy Society (AES). Nieto Estévez is one of 25 early career epilepsy scientists in the country who will receive up to $50,000 for stipend and travel support, along with one year of AES membership.
“The scientific and medical communities recognize there is a shortage of researchers focused on epilepsy,” said Page Pennell, M.D., AES President. “AES is committed to supporting early career investigators, which in turn will produce new discoveries and treatments in the years to come. Supporting junior investigators is vital given that cutbacks in research funding, particularly by government agencies, have made it extremely difficult for new investigators to secure grants needed to launch a research career and subsequently compete for larger, longer-term support from the National Institutes of Health or other sources.”
Nieto Estévez is working alongside Jenny Hsieh, the Semmes Foundation Distinguished Chair in Cell Biology and director of the UTSA Brain Health Consortium, to model genetic epilepsy using cells from patients who have gene mutations that lead to the development and onset of seizures. Using these cells, Nieto Estévez is growing mini-brains to study the mechanisms that produce epilepsy. Her goal is to use the models for drug screening and to ultimately find better treatments for patients who suffer from the disease.
“Six out of every 1,000 children have uncontrolled seizures,” said Hsieh. “Through this AES fellowship, Vanesa will study human brain organoids from children with a genetic form of epilepsy in order to understand the mechanisms of neurodevelopment and circuit formation. I am proud to support Vanesa, and this fellowship represents our commitment to advancing the prevention, treatment and cure of epilepsy.”
Nieto Estévez earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in Neuroscience from Autónoma University of Madrid and the Cajal Institute, Spain’s oldest neurobiology research institute. From 2007 to 2015, she worked in progressively senior roles as a researcher in the Vicario-Abejón laboratory at the Cajal Institute. That research team is focused on how extracellular and transcription factors regulate the number of neural stem and progenitor cells as well as how those molecules influence the formation of neurons in the dentate gyrus, a region of the brain important for learning and memory.
From 2015 to 2018, Nieto Estévez was a postdoctoral fellow in Jenny Hsieh’s neural stem cell biology laboratory at UT-Southwestern Medical Center. As a member of that research program, which moved to UTSA in spring 2018, Nieto Estévez studied the gene regulatory mechanisms that control neural stem cell fate. At UTSA, she is applying these mechanisms to understand the causes of epilepsy and develop better therapeutics.
UTSA is home to the Brain Health Consortium, a collaborative, multi-disciplinary team of nearly 40 investigators committed to discovering the inner workings of the brain. The consortium integrates researchers with expertise in neuroscience, regenerative medicine, medicinal chemistry, biomedical engineering, and data analytics, with the common goal of applying those discoveries to prevent and treat neurological disorders.
The AES is one of the largest non-governmental funders for those starting their careers in epilepsy research, with over 85 percent of its grant dollars targeted to early career researchers working across the spectrum of epilepsy research from basic science through translational and clinical investigations. Program awardees include predoctoral and postdoctoral trainees, junior investigators establishing their independent programs, and clinicians and fellows pursuing additional training for a career in research.
The AES fellowship is Nieto Estévez’s fifth professional funding award.
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