Stem Cells in Focus

Member Spotlight on Lygia V. Pereira, Ph.D.

  • 17 April, 2017
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Current Residence:
São Paulo, Brazil

Graduate Degrees:
M.S. in Biophysics from Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences (Human Genetics) from CUNY/Mount Sinai Graduate School, NY. 

Postgrad Work:
Human Genetics, University of São Paulo, Brazil

Current Positions:
Full Professor at the National Laboratory of Embryonic Stem Cells (LaNCE) Department of Genetics and Evolutionary Biology at University of São Paulo, Brazil

What is the current focus of your research?

My group has established lines of hESCs from the Brazilian population to (1) provide the cells for our cell therapy scientific community, and (2) to study X chromosome inactivation, an old research interest of my lab. 

More recently, our main focus turned to the use of PSCs to study differential drug response in vitro. The Brazilian population is one of the most heterogeneous worldwide, a result of its history of colonization and five centuries of interethnic crosses among Europeans (mostly Portuguese), Africans and Amerindians. Our objective is to develop a library of hiPSC that represents the genetic heterogeneity of the Brazilian population to be used for in vitro studies of drug response and toxicity. We have collected primary cells from 2,000 participants of an ongoing multicenter cohort study (Brazilian Longitudinal Study of the Adult Health –, and generated 22 lines of hiPSCs, 6 of which from individuals with resistant hypertension. We will collect primary cells from all 15,000 participants, and generate a proof-of-principle library of hiPSCs from hypertensive individuals responsive and resistant to pharmacological intervention. This expertise also allows us now to engage in the HaploBank project, and contribute with cells from our population.

What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?

I don´t remember when I decided to become a scientist; it just happened. I guess it was basic curiosity and an excellent genetics teacher in high school. That did not turn me into a scientist, but it was enough to – during my undergraduate in Electric engineering – make me look more into what was generally called genetic engineering. Then, a very generous preceptor accepted me as a trainee in a lab that studied molecular biology of development in drosophila, and that experience made me shift my major to Physics (I have a B.S. in Physics), and eventually to pursue a Ph.D. in human molecular genetics.

I started working with stem cells at the end of my Ph.D. at Mount Sinai, in NY, doing homologous recombination in ES cells to generate a mouse model for Marfan syndrome. At that time I saw ES cells just as a mean to get to the mouse model. Once back home, in 1996 I set up my own lab with a grant to establish the mouse-KO technology in Brazil. When human ESCs came along, our group had the most experience with pluripotent stem cells (although at that time I had no idea how different the human cells were from their mouse counterparts), and a few years later the Brazilian government started investing in regenerative medicine. So we got a grant to establish lines of hESCs (Jeanne Loring and her group were crucial to our success!). 

Our own research interest was to study XCI in those lines, but we provided the cells and training to many groups in Brazil interested in their use in cell therapy. Four years ago we became interested in the use of these cells to predict drug response in vitro, and we have since developed the framework to generate the cell library. Our hypothesis is that cell-based assays will become very robust, and when that happens, we will have the Brazilian population in a dish for in vitro clinical trials.

How do you spend your free time?

I spend most of my free time with my family (husband and two daughters, 11 and 9), or playing squash. When I’m at the beach, I enjoy stand up paddleboarding. Although I am originally from Rio, I very much enjoy São Paulo´s cultural life and diversity of people.

What is one thing your peers would be surprised to learn about you?

That I would give up my academic career for one on Broadway, singing in a Cole Porter or Gershwin musical. Actually, something smaller, like singing with a jazz band, would be enough. There is no risk of Brazil losing a stem cell scientist, though. I’ve been taking singing lessons on and off for years, basically just for fun, and I sing in an annual charity event. But this love for singing does not show at all in my professional life.

What do you like most about living and working where you do?

Once I decided to go back to Brazil, I traded Ipanema for FAPESP – the São Paulo State Funding Agency. That is, I traded my hometown beaches for the consistent funding one finds in São Paulo. I enjoy the very professional way things are done here. Between FAPESP and USP (University of São Paulo), I think I have the best working conditions possible in Brazil. Although doing research here can be challenging (mostly because of bureaucracy and delays in getting reagents), I have a great feeling of making a difference; in establishing a legal framework for SC research, in science education, and in translating science to the general population. And, why not, in the research we do?

As for living in São Paulo, five years in NYC prepared me to live in this very urban city and enjoy its diversity. I have met so many interesting people here, including my husband! 

Why did you decide to go back to Brazil and when?

At the end of my Ph.D., in 1994, I got a post-doc offer at Stanford, with [Professor of Genetics and of Pediatrics, Emerita] Uta Francke. By that time, I was away from Brazil for 5 years, and since I always thought of going back at some point, I decided to spend a few months at home in order to know the local state of the art, and plan my post-doc in the US so as to bring innovation back to my country. Those “few months” became 20 years now. Things turned out OK for me, but I do regret missing the Stanford experience.

What do you gain from your membership with the ISSCR?

One thing is access to articles. Another thing I gain is the ability to interact with other researchers. The interaction with the scientists is a much richer experience than simply reading the articles. For example, the collaboration we established with [Founding Member of the Stem Cell Program in the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering (ICE)] Lingzhao Cheng was paramount for our cell library project – and that is a relationship made through the ISSCR. 

Also, being part of a larger SC community and participating in a forum where the different aspects of SC research are discussed is critical. The forum is very important for guiding us in developing, regulating and communicating stem cell research in Brazil.