Eugènia Pujol «We aim to validate the idea that by targeting different pathways we can treat neuropathic pain more effectively»

At only twenty-eight years of age, Eugènia Pujol is entering the last year of her doctorate as head of the project ‘Addressing neuropathic pain with innovative dual drugs’, which has been selected within the framework of the CaixaImpulse Validate 2019 call for proposals and aims to develop a new compound for the treatment of neuropathic pain, a medical need that is not being met at present.

What is the project about?

The project focuses on the design and synthesis of a first family of dual compounds that interact with two proteins that regulate different pathways of neuropathic pain, a chronic and complex disease. Neuropathic pain is a serious public health problem worldwide; there are many people who suffer from it and it generates great economic, medical, and social costs. Its physiological pathways have long been studied, confirming that its origin is multifactorial. This means that there are many pathways within the body involved in the appearance of this disease. Unfortunately, no current pharmacological treatment is 100% effective in controlling it, leaving a very high percentage of patients who do not experience a clear improvement. Therefore, many continue to suffer from severe pain, and others suffer from the adverse effects of the medication they take, such the development of a severe dependency on opioids.

All these drugs focus on treating one of the affected pathways through interaction with a single biological target. The most innovative aspect of our project is that we control more than one of the affected processes, and we do this by means of compounds that act on two targets simultaneously. In other words, instead of striking a single piano key, we try to strike several keys at once.

How will you invest the CaixaImpulse grant?

We now have a first laboratory validation, but this first family of molecules is not yet optimized. The CaixaImpulse grant will be invested in a series of in vitro characterization tests that will finally allow us to select a candidate compound with which to perform a proof of concept in several animal models for neuropathic pain. Our goal is to validate the idea that by targeting different pathways using dual compounds we can treat this disease more effectively

How does it feel to work as a researcher at the age of twenty-eight?

I consider myself very lucky, for research is something that opens many doors, especially to someone as young as myself who has not yet finished her doctorate. I’m also lucky to have Dr Santiago Vázquez as my thesis supervisor. He has given me the chance to actively participate in the group’s projects and has always encouraged me to take advantage of any opportunity that presented itself to get more training in this field, to be involved in meetings between different research groups, and meetings between academia and companies. Being young means that we have less experience than someone who has been leading a research group for years, has applied for funding for several projects, and has already carried out a lot of research. However, we young people are also keen to learn everything that lies ahead of us, which in the world of research is no small thing. We are like a sponge, we learn quickly, and that motivation is a key factor in research.

In addition, making your research have an actual application or an impact on society through knowledge transfer is an experience I think young people should benefit from. In this sense, I have also been very fortunate and have been able to learn a lot from my supervisor.

Would you recommend research and knowledge transfer to young people who are just starting their careers?

Yes, I would recommend it, but I think the first requirement is to be curious about research: wanting to know why things happen, wanting to improve something, wanting to learn and contribute something at the same time. I think you need to find this in yourself. At the point I am now, I consider that research and knowledge transfer are very rewarding activities, although perhaps knowledge transfer is little known. As you train towards a career in pharmacy, it seems that you have to either look forward to working for a pharmaceutical company or at a local pharmacy. Engaging in knowledge transfer and exploring the possibilities of entrepreneurship are still unfamiliar options for students, and are seen as scary and quite unsettling avenues.

How important is knowledge transfer?

Knowledge transfer is essential. I believe that we are continuously generating knowledge, but to create something that has an impact on society, whether it is improving the quality of life of patients, or trying to cure a disease through a drug, among other things, is very important. In this sense, the FBG is an indispensable organization because it makes it possible for the research staff of the University of Barcelona to valorise their projects and to attract the additional funding they need, both public and private. As academics, we cannot develop a drug and bring it to market; we will always need a company to use its resources to get the drug candidate to clinical phases, which is really the most costly part of the process. For a project to be transferred to a company, we need an intermediary.

More about Eugènia Pujol

The best advancement in history

It’s very difficult to choose one, but right now, considering the Covid-19 pandemic, I would highlight the discovery of vaccines. This was a very important breakthrough for biomedical research and one of the main causes of the improvement of human health.

A future invention that scares you
The only thing that scares me is the idea that a discovery designed to benefit people could eventually be turned into the opposite.

Something you would like to see in the future

For us to fully understand 21st-century diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular diseases, and so on, and to be able to regulate their impact and control them. To achieve this, public and private investments need to be even more substantial than they are now, especially at the national level.

The FBG is…

…an indispensable entity without which knowledge transfer at the University of Barcelona would not be understood. It allows researchers to move from basic science to science that really has the potential to reach society. Personally, I believe that this is the return that many researchers are seeking: for our research to have an impact on society so that people who suffer from a disease have a better life. This is what drives us.

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