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Published: 10 Dec, 2020

Targeting cancer cells without affecting healthy cells

PROFILE Francesca Aguilo hails from Mallorca but came to Umeå four years ago having worked in Barcelona and then New York. Her work lies at the cutting edge of biomedical research and cancer. She studies how cells function, with the aim of finding out how to specifically remove cancer cells from the body without injuring healthy cells. Her research focuses on RNA modifications.

Text: Alekzandra Granath

DNA and RNA comprise the genetic material of the cells that make up our body and are two molecules with different jobs to do. DNA is responsible for long-term, stable storage of the genetic program, while RNA transports genetic information from DNA to proteins, which perform most of the jobs that need to be performed in our cells.

I have a real passion for research and discovery and this is what drew me to Umeå

“An important recent discovery, which Francesca has helped to uncover, is that information from DNA is transferred to proteins via specific changes to RNA molecules known as RNA modification. It is the changes to RNA that are critically in sculpting the production of proteins,” says Francesca Aguilo.

Before joining Umeå University, Francesca Aguilo studied for her Bachelor’s Degree in Biochemistry and Biology and completed her doctoral education in Barcelona. After this she moved to the USA and underwent a seven-year postdoctoral appointment in New York. She moved to Umeå to take up one of the first positons at the prestigious Wallenberg Centre for Molecular Medicine when it launched in 2017. She is fully settled as a molecular biologist at Umeå University and has no plans to move again.

“I really love my work and the opportunities that are open to me here, so it looks like I’m here to stay!”

RNA – all is not what it seems

Francesca Aguilo explains that modern technology has enabled us to understand that RNA is far more important and complex than previously understood. Part of this revaluation of the role of RNA in health and disease has come from the understanding that RNA can be modified chemically.

“If a modification occurs in the wrong place, it can lead to diseases such as cancer, diabetes or Alzheimer’s.”

We have even discovered that cancer cells stop growing

Francesca Aguilo and her research team are able to add or remove chemical modifications on RNA in cancer cells and have seen that it changes how cancer cells behave.

“If we interfere with RNA modification in cancer cells, we find that they can grow as efficiently any more. This is very exciting because it could lead to the development of new cancer therapies. Now we are understanding which RNA can be modified and if this is important for the transition from a normal cell to a cancer cell.”

An entirely new field

As this type of research is entirely new, researchers throughout the world are still trying to find out how RNA modification works.

“Although the last 10 years has been important in understanding that changes in RNA modification occur, now we strive to understand how these changes lead to cancer. Would it be possible to just take out or target the unhealthy cell without damaging or affecting the normal cell? We don’t have the answer to that question yet, but we are committed to finding an answer and a new means of treating a killer disease”

Short facts about Francesca Aguilo

Name: Francesca Aguilo
Family: Husband and two children –both born New York
Comes from: Mallorca, Spain
Lives: Umeå
Driving force in research: The enthusiasm of getting results, solving problems training the next generation of researchers
Relaxing moments: When reading books, listening to music, performing yoga, travelling (before COVID-19 struck) and tending to my garden