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A University biologist-Biochemistry researches on Listeria monocytogenes in Denmark.

Pilar Menéndez seeks therapeutic targets and new vaccines to eliminate the bacterium during infection, lethal in humans in 30% of cases

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Pilar Menéndez.
PHOTO: Courtesy
22/07/14 11:02 Laura Latorre

Pilar Menéndez, a graduate in Biology and Biochemistry (award extraordinary) from the University of Navarra, is researching to better understand the mechanisms of iron regulation in Listeria monocytogenes, in order to find new therapeutic targets and vaccines to control listeriosis. The final goal of his research is to develop a vaccine against this bacterium, which is able to survive in a wide range of environments -including high salt concentrations and low temperatures- and is present in food, especially in cheese and undercooked meats.

Listeria monocytogenes is the cause of listeriosis, an infection that can be lethal in humans in 30% of cases. The disease can become serious in risk groups such as immunocompromised persons, the elderly and pregnant women. The researcher stresses that "even when early treatment is started, antibiotics are sometimes ineffective. This is one of the reasons why research is being done on an effective vaccine".

Pilar Menéndez's study is part of her final project Master's Degree in Molecular Biology, which she is carrying out at theUniversity of Southern Denmark and which she hopes to defend at the end of this year. His stay in Denmark began thanks to the agreement Erasmus that the School of Sciences has with this Danish university. There he met the person who is now his director of project who encouraged him to study the Master's Degree and to do research on this bacterium.

Currently, Menéndez enjoys a scholarship from 'la Caixa' to carry out programs of study of postgraduate program in European universities.

Regulating the iron level: goal priority

To achieve the ultimate goal of research , it is necessary to understand why this bacterium is pathogenic, that is, to know what its virulence factors are. Specifically, Menéndez's project focuses on the study of one of them: the mechanism by which the bacterium introduces and regulates the level of iron. This element is essential for Listeria but in large quantities it is toxic, as it causes oxidative stress through the production of free radicals. Listeria obtains the iron it needs through the heme group of the hemoglobin of the host it infects.

Menéndez is studying the mechanism of iron uptake and the mode of regulation to prevent it from becoming toxic to the bacteria. He does this through a novel gene regulation system based on small RNA molecules (sRNA or small RNA). "In recent years, it has been discovered that these are very important as regulatory mechanisms for bacteria, being even more efficient than proteins because they are faster and use less energy," concludes the researcher.