Amanda Castro, MD
In the Lab with Neuroscientist Maria Herva Moyano, PhD
How a neuroscientist went from probing diseases of the brain to finding drugs that can cure them
Like many scientists, Dr. Maria Herva Moyano, PhD, credits a high school science teacher with inspiring her to pursue a lab career. Today the Spanish-born scientist is a leader in the Neurosciences group at Charles River, specializing in misfolded proteins and their impact on neurodegenerative diseases, from mad-cow disease and Alzheimer’s disease to Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and Huntington’s. Her career has taken her from the pharma world to the world of contract research, where she is handling multiple projects for multiple clients. Amanda Castro, MD, Client Engagement Manager with Charles River’s Discovery section, interviewed Dr. Herva Moyano about the seeds of her life’s work, what she enjoys most about her job and what she thinks drug development will look like in the years to come. The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Can you give us a general description of your professional roots?
Maria: I studied biology after being inspired by a wonderful teacher I had in secondary school, and since then scientific curiosity has been what has guided my journey and defined my career. While I was studying in college, the mad-cow crisis broke out in the UK and later in other parts of Europe, and I decided to pursue a PhD about that subject matter. Prions (proteins causing the disease in cows, as well as in humans) fascinated me because their transmission mechanism clashed with the central dogma of molecular biology. From prions, I broadened my interests to other neurodegenerative diseases with proteins that aggregated and could be transmitted experimentally in a similar way.
Next, I started getting involved in projects focusing on the discovery of drugs for the purpose of developing therapies for devastating neurodegenerative diseases. Once I was interested in that much more translational side of science, it was a matter of (a short) time before I changed my professional trajectory to that industry, first at a pharmaceutical company and now at Charles River Laboratories, a contract research organization (CRO).
What does your daughter think of your career? Or what do you hope to pass on to your daughter?
Maria: My daughter loves the fact that her mother, as well as her father, are dedicated to developing drugs for helping patients. However, although she has the heart of a scientist, she’s much more into computer science and engineering than biomedical research. Personally, I love the fact that at ten years old she’s interested in robotics and programming. Those are part of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) profiles, which, aside from being professional careers with huge employment potential, tend to have less female representation.
What lessons do you hope for your daughter to learn from you?
Maria: Like every mother, I’d like for my daughter to be strong and brave and take the reins without anyone telling her that there are things that she can’t do, to know that it’s OK to make mistakes because that’s how we learn, and to have two pairs of glasses ready: one to see things from everyone else’s point of view and another one to see the positive side of any given situation.
What is your favorite part of your workday?
Maria: In my current position, one side of my job is being the group head, and the other is being a scientific leader in drug development projects, so I’ll allow myself to choose a part for each one. My favorite part as group head is meeting individually with each member of my team, talking about their expectations and ambitions, and discussing options for professional development with them. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the group make progress in their careers.
On the scientific side, my favorite part is when, after having prepared a project proposal on drug development for a client, we start working together: putting together the multidisciplinary team that will carry out the different parts of the project, discussing the results that are being obtained and feeling like it’s moving in the right direction.
Your specialization in researching drug development includes Alzheimer’s disease, which affects more than 44 million people throughout the world. Could you share with us your opinion about two innovative antibody therapies recently granted Breakthrough Therapy designation by the FDA — lecanemab and donanemab — and the benefits in stopping or significantly slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease?
Maria: This has been a very important year for those of us working on developing drugs to fight Alzheimer’s disease, with two possible therapies being classified as “Breakthrough therapy” by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States. That designation allows the advances and clinical trials to be sped up for a drug used in diseases that are considered serious or fatal, as is the case with Alzheimer’s. Both lecanemab and donanemab are antibodies against a protein called beta-amyloid, which aggregates and forms plaques within the brains of Alzheimer´s patients. Although they share the same therapeutic target, they recognize different stages of aggregation. Lecanemab binds to soluble beta-amyloid protofibrils, while donanemab binds to a type of beta-amyloid found within established amyloid plaques.
The clinical trials for lecanemab suggest that individuals treated with the antibody experience a slowdown in the accumulation of amyloid plaques, which continues whenever there’s a disruption in treatment.
In the case of donanemab, the result that I’d highlight as most important is that, in addition to the reduction of the amyloid plaque and the Tau protein, which is determined by PET (positron-emission tomography), this is the first time that the reduction of phosphorylated Tau in blood tests has been demonstrated in a clinical trial for and Alzheimer´s drug. This result, once it’s validated and reproduced, may be a turning point in clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease.
Both drugs are still in their trial stages, and there’s no doubt that we in the scientific community, as well as patients and the families of patients with Alzheimer’s disease, are anxiously awaiting future results.
Can you describe a “Eureka Moment” in your career?
Maria: I think the moment that probably marked a turning point in my career was when, after being dedicated to a very specific field – researching prion transmission –I realized that everything I’d learned, studied, and even developed as techniques was applicable beyond that field. I looked ahead and then threw myself into researching other neurodegenerative diseases, which allowed me to have a much broader focus in my area of research. That was a critical decision in my professional career.
You’re very active in community, educational and professional programs, which are very close to your heart. Could you share the why for your passion and motivation?
This answer could be very short: I have a passion for science and a passion for communicating with others, so taking part in educational programs with kids and young adults, as well as professional tutoring, satisfies me very much on a personal level.
There’s a longer answer that includes other motivations like wanting to show that anyone can be a scientist and break down stereotypes in gender and ethnicity. It’s surprising the percentage of kids who give you back a sketch of an older white gentleman in glasses and a white lab coat whenever you ask them to draw a scientist. With that kind of preconceived notion, it’s no wonder that a girl doesn’t feel drawn to scientific courses during her school years. There need to be more women exemplifying those positions so that girls can have role models to follow.
Another one of my motivations is talking about the science that we do at Charles River, and how we do it, with anyone and everyone who cares to listen. We have some extraordinary research teams that have been involved in developing 89 compounds that have been named as candidates in the area of Discovery, which is where I am. And that’s within a diverse and inclusive business culture that keeps supporting and developing its employees very high on its list of priorities. Both of those things fill me with pride and motivate me to talk about it to attract new talent so that we can pursue new projects in drug development.
What do you see for the future of drug development, for science, for yourself?
Maria: I think that in the world we’re living in, overcoming a pandemic, science has been in everyone’s sights — as a protagonist in countless conversations and a heroine that, in the form of vaccine development, has prevented the terrible human losses of this tragedy from continuing to rise uncontrollably. So, the present and the future for scientists is probably promising.
Regarding drug development, I think the future will bring advances and discoveries in the type of therapeutic modalities. For years now, the concept of medication has not been limited just to chemical compounds, but included peptides, RNA, antibodies (with many different forms and functions), cellular therapy, gene therapy — and the list keeps on growing. This is a moment when the creativity of scientists has been breaking down barriers to allow for the development of drugs for therapeutic targets that were once inconceivable. Going along with this are the unstoppable advances in information technology, which are revolutionizing the development of medications — from advances in analyzing large volumes of data to using artificial intelligence to facilitate the design of molecules or even the possibility of doing virtual trials to identify possible molecules with therapeutic potential.
The advances in those two areas, as well as the combination of both, offer unlimited possibilities. From the standpoint of Charles River, it seems very promising for me to see that those are the directions we’re moving in and the areas in which we’re growing, both organically as well as from working with associated companies.
This interview was conducted by Amanda Castro, MD, Client Engagement Manager with Charles River’s Discovery section. This article will also be appearing on the dedicated discovery web portal Charles River hosts for Spain and LATAM territories.