Elena M. Ribe, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist originally from Spain and currently working at the University of Oxford in the Department of Psychiatry. She is embedded within the Translational Neuroscience and Dementia Research group. Elena is a WYLD member and looks forward to continuing to engaging WYLD.
Elena, Where do you work and what do you do?
I am a Spanish neuroscientist working at the University of Oxford. The team is structured in several subgroups: Clinical Trials; Bioinformatics/Biomarkers and Molecular Mechanisms. As a senior scientist, I lead the Molecular Mechanisms subgroup, which is being an absolutely amazing opportunity.
I am really keen in understanding those signalling pathways that are different between disease and healthy cells, how those pathways change in the context of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) so that we can identify critical regulators that could provide a novel therapeutic approach to stop or revert disease progression. In order to do this, in my team we work with a variety of models: from rat primary neuronal cultures and human neurons derived from induced pluripotent stem cells to identify and validate targets and to perform drug discovery studies to animal models that express human mutant genes that are causative of the disease in humans in order to validate whether those identified pathways and critical molecules could provide therapeutic benefit.
Currently, I am checking whether a specific regulator of the immune system could be of benefit in preventing or slowing down progression in a mouse model of AD (see photo below).
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
I work in a laboratory and what keeps me going, and the most rewarding thing, can be as simple as a tiny little spot inside a cell when checked under the microscope, or the appearance or disappearance of a particular band in a membrane when checking for proteins.
“Seeing” that the science being carried out in the lab has an impact at the biological level is something that simply makes my day. Keeping in mind that every little step that we are advancing in our labs can have a direct impact on patients’ life is the most rewarding thing about my job.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
The most challenging part of my work is the translational aspect. We are working in the lab with a simplified model of a disease, working with neurons grown in a petri dish, adding aggregated proteins that are found in the diseased brain and checking how those proteins affect the function of those neurons. But this is a very simplistic way for us to be able to test the hypothesis and extract conclusions.
After doing this in vitro testing, we need to go to in vivo models of the disease that recapitulate some of the major hallmarks of the disease. But as the name says it is still a model- more complex than before, but a model at the end of the day. Failing to see applicability from the in vitro/in vivo discoveries into human successes is the main challenge and the most heartbreaking aspect of the research. But we must keep on trying!
What motivates you to work in dementia?
I have been working in dementia for the past 13 years although I have to say that I came to this field. Thanks to a European exchange studentship between my Spanish university (Universidad de Navarra) and University College Dublin (UCD), I was offered a 6-month project in neurosciences.
It was an unknown field to me at that time but I immediately became fascinated. And when, eventually, I returned to Spain to perform my PhD studies, I enrolled into the Neurosciences programme. Ever since then, dementia has been my main scientific interest.
I believe my interest arises from a combination of factors: a) the intriguing complexity of the brain; b) despite the many studies how little, even today, is known about how the brain works; c) how devastating dementia is and the impact that it has not only for the individual, but for families and societies; d) despite AD being described over a century ago and being the most common type of dementia among the elderly, there is still no disease-modifying therapies for this disease.
If we take into consideration that age is the main risk factor for dementia, together with the fact that societies are aging due to the increase in life expectancy, the incidence of dementia is expected to almost quadruple in the next 3 decades.
Is this situation sustainable? To me the answer is clear: No. And I really want to make a difference in the fight against dementia. That’s what drives me and motivate me in my day-to-day.
What advice would you give someone interested in future work in the dementia field?
If you are passionate about [this field], then you will succeed no matter how hard people around will tell you it might be. To me, the prospect of seeing these diseases fade away is my key driver, and knowing that, one way or another, I am contributing towards it gives me the strength and the drive to continue.
Passion and dedication will take you there. No doubt!
What do you do when you are not at work?
I love my science and spending hours looking through a microscope but there are other things very interesting as well! I absolutely love playing piano, although unfortunately I don’t play as much anymore because meeting friends and socialising takes also a big part of my life.
I love going to the gym and getting fit. Body combat and body pump are my favourite classes although I won’t say no to a class as long as there is loud music that sets me free for a while.
I used to be part of a gymnastics team while growing up in Spain so sports are a natural part in my life. But no, I am not only high energy, high impact classes. I can get absolutely hooked on…cross-stitch! Yes, you won’t be able to make me leave the house until I haven’t finished whatever kind of piece I have in my hands.
As you can see, science is a big part of my life but in order to have the energy to be dedicated to it you must find other activities that nurture different aspects of your life, in whatever shape and form these might come!
Are there other things about you that you would like to share with WYLD?
Being part of WYLD has been a very unique opportunity to make science accessible to a wider community.
Precisely because of that, and as an EU citizen working in the UK, the network provides a valuable platform that could be used to make a case so that the needs of the scientific community living in the UK can be listened to by the government helping to bring views closer together.