The epigenetics expert Roberto Agis-Balboa, who joined the Biomedical Research Institute (IBI) in 2013 as part of the BIOCAPS project, has been awarded the first Ramón y Cajal contract for the Galician biomedical community in more than 10 years. This will ensure his continuity at the institute, where he will continue his studies into Alzheimer's disease and depression, for at least five more years.
Agis-Balboa affirms that he is facing this new period “with high hopes and motivation”. The Ramón y Cajal programme is highly competitive, with only 175 contracts being awarded annually in all research fields in Spain. “It's a great relief to know that I can concentrate only on research without having to be always worrying about what might happen tomorrow, whether I might have to leave and start over again somewhere else,” he notes, after having spent the majority of his career in Germany and the USA before being able to return to Spain.
His work at IBI over the past two years has concentrated in the search for biomarkers and therapeutic targets for Alzheimer's disease and depression, in the latter case continuing with a line of research started in his doctoral thesis at the University of Illinois (USA).
With regard to the future, his priority is to establish epigenetics (the study of the interactions between our genes and environmental factors or our lifestyle) as a key area of scientific research at the Hospital Álvaro Cunqueiro rather than being limited to the field of neuroscience, in which he is currently working.
Alzheimer's disease will continue to be the main focus of his research efforts. “There are currently 35 million people worldwide with this disease, and this number is expected to increase to 150 million by 2050. Only 1% of cases have a genetic origin, and our lifestyle is known to be a key trigger in the remaining 99% of cases, known as sporadic Alzheimer's disease,” he explains. In addition to the fact that this disease is currently incurable, one of the main problems is that the disease only tends to be detected at an advanced stage, and at that point it is often too late. “This is one of the main challenges that I've set myself – to search for early diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers for the disease,” he states.
With regard to depression, his studies concentrate on the use of lymphocytes obtained from blood samples to search for a biomarker that will allow the specific treatment most suitable for each patient to be identified. “Such a test would save both time and money and would obviously improve the quality of life of patients, with no side-effects or lack of efficacy as not all treatments are appropriate for all patients,” notes Agis-Balboa.
In the longer term, he hopes to combine these two fields of research in order to understand the interaction between both diseases. “Although some studies have shown depression to be a risk factor for suffering Alzheimer's disease, the epigenetic mechanisms involved in this interaction remain unknown,” he explains. “These studies, combined with modern genome sequencing and biocomputing techniques, will allow us to understand these diseases on a case-by-case, patient-by-patient basis, thus allowing us to design personalised epigenetic therapies in the future.”
In this context, Agis-Balboa considers the collaboration agreement signed recently between the three biomedical institutes and the universities in Galicia to be a major step forward. “This will allow both a flow of students and a greater interaction between basic and clinical science, which is essential if we want to do good, high-impact and translational science. We also need a multidisciplinary approach to each project, people with different abilities and skills, all pulling in the same direction,”, he explains.
His laboratory work is complemented by an intensive dissemination activity with the aim of explaining epigenetics to the wider public. “Over the past few years I have given talks all over Galicia, I've organised conferences, I've been interviewed on the radio and have written on numerous blogs and journals with the hope that all this effort has helped people to get to know this field a little. Nobody escapes from epigenetics, not even epigenetics itself!” he states.
Roberto Agis-Balboa holds a degree in biology and a masters in neuroscience from the University of Santiago de Compostela. He undertook his doctoral studies in the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois in Chicago (USA), where he researched the biosynthesis of neurosteroids and the epigenetic theory of schizophrenia. He subsequently moved to Germany to work as a post-doctoral research at the European Neuroscience Institute (Göttingen) between 2008 and 2013. While there he specialised in the genome-environment interactions that occur during the cognitive impairment associated with ageing, psychiatric disorders and neurodegenerative diseases.
His Ramón y Cajal contract will allow him to remain at the IBI and, if he successfully passes the fourth year evaluation, his initial award of 40,000 euros for research will be increased by a further 100,000 euros to stabilise his work situation.