It was a sheep that determined Filipe Pereira's career choice. He was in high school when he heard about Dolly, one of the world's most extreme examples of cell reprogramming. This sparked Filipe Pereira's curiosity about the human body, and he put aside his plans to study architecture, choosing instead biology and later pursue a doctorate in epigenetics.
Since then, Filipe Pereira's research has taken him around the world, from his home country in Portugal to London, New York and Sweden. Today, he is a professor of molecular medicine at Lund University, and in recent years, his research successes and prestigious research grants have followed one another.
– I am happy and extremely honored to receive this prestigious award. I have been in the field of Cellular Reprogramming for twenty years and the Fernström prize is a fantastic way to celebrate this milestone!
Filipe Pereira has found his niche at the interface of cellular reprogramming and blood cell identity. He has succeeded in converting human skin cells into blood stem cells, which is a first step towards creating fully functional blood stem cells in test tubes. Blood stem cells lose important characteristics when they are cultured, while skin cells are both easily accessible and can be easily expanded in test tubes. Reprogramming skin cells to blood stem cells could potentially provide an unlimited source of cells for transplantation to patients with blood disorders.
Pereira's research also involves reprogramming skin cells into dendritic cells, which are the sentinels of the immune system. They play a key role in orchestrating the immune response by "informing" other immune cells about the threat from foreign substances in the body. In cancer patients dendritic cells may become dysfunctional or excluded from tumors. Therefore, new ways are needed to reprogram other cells into immune cells with the same capacity as the "natural" dendritic cells.
– Through the cloning of Dolly, we learned that the cell nucleus contains all the genetic information needed for the cell to develop into any type of cell. The challenge is knowing which molecules need to be added to alter gene expression and initiate reprogramming.
By using skin cells as the starting cell-type, he managed to identify the three molecules needed to “program” dendritic cells in just nine days. In the next step, he used the same molecules to reprogram cancer cells into dendritic cells. In other words, using the molecules as a trojan horse to "force" cancer cells to develop into immune cells. The reprogrammed cancer cells thereby lose their ability to become tumors, and instead activate the immune system to respond to mutated proteins in the tumor.
– There have been significant advancements in the field of immunotherapy, offering hope to patients that cannot be treated with chemotherapy or radiotherapy. However, as tumors evade immune system detection many patients or tumor types do not respond. Our findings are paving the way for the development of a gene therapy for cancer where the three molecules are delivered directly into tumors in patients eliciting a response independently of the tumor type.
This article was published 13 October 2023 at https://www.medicine.lu.se/news