SULSA ECR Prize for Joana Faria

Published on 24 September 2020

Joana Faria has been awarded a SULSA Early Career Research Prize for Development and Regulation.

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The award is made to outstanding early career scientists whose work shows excellent potential to make an impact in the field of life sciences.

Joana, a postdoc in Professor David Horn’s lab, competed against three other shortlisted researchers, including two others from the School, in the Development and Regulation theme category at the virtual final on Wednesday. Each finalist had to present to the judging panel on their research and its significance in three minutes.

Joana said, "I am very honoured for receiving this award and see our work in trypanosomes recognised, especially among several other fantastic candidates (including Tom and Adam in our School who did brilliantly). This prize will allow me to present my work in different Institutions across Scotland that I chose and therefore establish important connections for the research I would like to develop independently in the future."

Joana presented her research into trypanosomes for her prize entry. “Trypanosomes are masters of disguise! Indeed, they undergo antigenic variation by shifting a surface exposed antigen and therefore evade the host immune response. A great number of pathogens is able to do this, including malaria causing parasites. Antigenic variation is a very powerful and sophisticated virulence mechanism that has deeply challenged vaccine development against these organisms, therefore rendering the investigation of the mechanisms that sustain it of critical importance in infection biology. A key aspect for successful antigenic variation is the ability of expressing a single antigen at a time from myriad possibilities, which is known as single gene choice and prevents premature exhaustion of the antigen repertoire,” explained Joana.  

The machinery that controls this process had remained elusive for decades but recently Joana and colleagues identified a novel protein complex (VEX complex) that controls VSG expression in trypanosomes. This work was published last year in Nature Communications

In collaboration with a group at the LMU (Munich, Germany) follow-up work (available to read on biorxiv) has discovered that this complex orchestrates a specific DNA arrangement in the nucleus of these cells so that the single active antigen coding gene is in close proximity to an RNA processing centre. “In simple terms, trypanosomes assemble a transcription and splicing factory to express their active surface antigen. This allows them to express a single antigen at a time whilst ensuring that that antigen is expressed at very high levels,” concluded Joana.

This prize aims to help exceptional postdocs to raise their profile in Scotland. It includes a fully-funded tour of three Scottish Universities where the awardee will deliver a seminar and meet with staff, and develop their independent networks. In addition, the awardee will receive £2,000 of flexible funding to be used at their discretion for attending conferences, buying consumables, attending training courses or visiting collaborators etc.

Three other members of the School made the finals. Tom Deegan (Labib lab, MRC-PPU), and Adam Fletcher (Virdee lab, MRC-PPU) were also shortlisted in the development and regulation theme, while Sofia Arnaouteli (Stanley-Wall lab, MMB) was shortlisted in the ecosystems theme.


Scottish Universities Life Science Alliance (SULSA) is a strategic alliance between eleven Scottish Universities that’s aims to advance Scotland’s research and innovation in the life sciences. 


Image:Trypanosomes. Adapted from Faria et al. 2019. Credit: Joana Faria.

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