María José’s scientific interests began in her home town of Quito in Ecuador where she learned about bacterial resistance in the Ecuadorian population. From there she gained basic understanding in science, however scarce research funding in Ecuador prompted her to continue her passion for science farther afield.
From Latin America to Spain
María José first moved from Ecuador to Spain to carry out her Master’s degree.
‘When I moved to Spain, the possibility of doing basic research in different fields was exciting. Taking cell biology and neurobiology classes made me realize that I wanted to continue studying the brain.’ María José
This realisation led her to apply for a PhD in the lab of Professor José Manuel Garcia-Verdugo at the University of Valencia. Using funding from the MSIF-ECTRIMS McDonald Fellowship, she learned several powerful techniques including electron microscopy, and a genome editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9. Electron microscopy allowed María José to visualise very small compartments in a cell and genome editing (see glossary) meant she could alter a gene’s structure to change its function. She aimed to understand if genome editing could be used to improve the body’s ability to remyelinate injured nerve cells in mice.
In Valencia she was given the opportunity to train students and to attend scientific congresses. She built strong collaborations with labs across Spain and internationally, developing projects with groups in the US, the UK, Sweden, and Italy.
The conditions of her PhD required her to conduct a shorter research project outside Spain, so she applied for MSIF’s Du Pré Grant, which funds projects of up to six months. She had set her eyes on Dr Steven Fancy’s lab at the University of California, San Francisco, but the COVID-19 pandemic meant she was unable to travel.
She changed her project plan, instead working at the Achucarro Basque Center for Neuroscience with Dr Vanja Tepavcevic, trying to understand remyelination in the spinal cord of a mouse model of MS at a molecular level.
Back across the Atlantic
After her Du Pré Grant she was offered a post-doctoral position in the lab of Assistant Professor Veronique Belzil at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, USA, an important moment in María José’s career…
‘In the USA… research is better funded and highly competitive, and I am amazed by all the opportunities that the Belzil lab is offering me.’
In Belzil’s lab she is currently on the hunt for biomarkers for MS. María José is specifically looking for biomarkers in vesicles, which are essentially small bags that carry neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are molecules which carry chemical signal from one nerve cell to the next. This allows nerve cells to communicate with each other.
Regenerating axons in the brain of people with MS
To become an independent researcher, Dr Ulloa Navas is now seeking funding for a new project. She is studying a particular part of the brain called the ependyma. The ependyma is a thin layer of cells separating the brain and spinal cord from its ventricles (see glossary). These cells have been thought to be involved in nerve cell regeneration in the brain and spinal cord.
María José is trying to understand if there are changes to these cells in MS, which could give clues into understanding regeneration. She is using human samples of MS and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), another type of neurodegenerative disease.
Why does this particular piece of work matter? María José explains:
‘This area of research is of great interest, as ependymal cells represent a barrier, preventing substances from the cerebrospinal fluid to enter the brain. Understanding how ependymal cells function is important, [because if] the ependyma is altered, molecules related to the immune system may pass through this barrier.’
Nerve cells carry messages between the brain and spinal cord and the organs and limbs of the body using axons (nerve fibers) (see glossary). These nerve cells control everything we do, from how we move to how we think and feel. Like insulation on an electrical wire, myelin is the fatty protective coating that surrounds nerve fibres. In MS, immune cells enter the brain and spinal cord and attack the myelin, the nerve cells, and the nerve fibers.
When myelin becomes damaged in MS, nerve cells die. When cells and the connection between them dies, this is called brain atrophy. This type of atrophy causes the symptoms of MS. Therefore, remyelination (adding myelin back onto nerve fibers) and regeneration (building new nerve cells) is a crucial topic in MS. The lateral ventricle one of the spaces in the brain which hold cerebrospinal fluid is the part of the brain that creates the most new neurons and glia in the infant brain.
‘Studying this area may lead us to identifying new targets for regeneration’ María José adds.
Dr María José Ulloa Navas presenting her work on remyelination.
Helping people affected by MS
María José’s passion and focus doesn’t stop at the lab bench. Her genuine compassion for individuals affected by MS shines through every part of her work. In Quito, the capital of Ecuador, she helped to set up a much-needed patient association: Asociación de pacientes de Esclerosis Múltiple y Enfermedades Desmielinizantes (APEMEDE.com).
‘In the last years I have seen how they have come together […] Their hard work despite the circumstances is really inspiring for me’ says María José.
Dr Ulloa Navas has given scientific talks in accessible language to people affected by MS and was involved in helping to improve access to DMTs for people with MS through the Ecuadorian courts.
APEMEDE has also helped to improve our understanding of access to DMTs, feeding into MSIF’s Atlas of MS. This was no small feat for a country like Ecuador, where there were no registered data on MS prevalence.
What drives María José?
María José has excelled in her profession, publishing several important research articles, building international collaborations across three continents, and helping set up an MS organisation in Ecuador for people affected by MS. What keeps her going?
María Jose attributes her motivation to her parents. In a country where higher education is still a privilege, she realised how hard her parents had to work just to give her the opportunity of a good education.
‘Through these years out of my country, I comprehended that not many people from small countries [like Ecuador] can work in research and thus, I am grateful.’
In addition to her academic outputs, it is clear that Dr María José Ulloa Navas inspires others through kindness and genuine drive to improve the lives of people affected by MS.
‘My grandmother passed away a couple of years ago. She supported me through everything and truly helped me believe that anything is achievable with love and hard work.’
María José aims to one day start her own lab, focusing on the ventricular-subventricular-zone in MS. She would like to go back to Ecuador, but recognises that research funding is unfortunately still very limited. Until then, she’ll be an ambassador for Ecuador.
Dr María José Ulloa Navas was funded by the MSIF-ECTRIMS McDonald Fellowship, which was funded by ECTRIMS (European Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis), and then an MSIF Du Pré Grant.
Our other partner organization, ARSEP (La Fondation pour l’Aide à la Recherche sur la Sclérose En Plaque), has funded other McDonald Fellowships.
We are extremely grateful to our partner organisations ECTRIMS and ARSEP. Without their support, these awards would not be possible.
Axon/nerve fiber: An axon or nerve fiber, is a long ‘cable’, of a nerve cell, or neuron, in vertebrates, which often conducts electrical impulses between cells.
Cerebrospinal fluid: a clear, colourless body fluid found within the tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.
Genome: the complete set of genetic information in an organism, for instance the human genome or the rat genome.
Genome editing: A way to alter gene structure to change its function. One of those techniques are called CRISPR-Cas9.
Myelin: Nerve cells carry messages between the brain and spinal cord and the organs and limbs of the body. They control everything we do, from how we move to how we think and feel. Myelin is the fatty protective coating that surrounds nerve fibres – a bit like the insulation on an electrical wire.
Ventricle: spaces in the brain which hold cerebrospinal fluid. The ventricular system starts at the bottom of the central canal in the spinal cord, running all the way up to the fourth ventricle of the brain, allowing for the flow of CSF to circulate throughout. CSF washes out impurities from the brain, transfers nutrients and provides protective cushioning to the brain and spinal cord.
Vertebrate: Organisms with internal backbone surrounded by bone, also called vertebrae. They have a hard skeleton made of bone, supporting the body’s tissues, anchoring muscle.