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Changing Course

From agriculture to cancer in children

VIRGÍNIA YUNESResearcher José Andrés Yunes, 46, who earned a degree in agronomic engineering at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), was studying plants when he moved into molecular biology research on leukemia in children. “When I was studying agronomy, I began to work with in vitro plant cell cultures,” Yunes explains. The interest in cell culture was the starting point for a road that took him to the Boldrini Children’s Center in Campinas, which is a leader in the treatment of cancer in children. “At a conference held at Esalq [Luiz de Queiroz School of Agriculture] in Piracicaba, I saw a poster on graduate studies in cell biology at the State University of Campinas,” he says. He went straight from the conference to Campinas, where he met Professor Paulo Arruda, who was coordinating the FAPESP Sugar Cane Genome Project. This led to a specialization and a doctorate in molecular biology.

Upon completing his doctorate in April 1997, he learned from Arruda that the Boldrini Center was interested in setting up a molecular biology laboratory at the hospital. Six months after he began collaborating with the Boldrini Center informally, he was hired as a researcher and began to set up the laboratory with high-tech equipment, such as an automatic sequencer. “I spent two weeks in Italy where I learned how to diagnose leukemia,” he says. Yunes began to advise undergraduates, but his projects were not being approved because his background was not in the medical field.

In order to advance in the area, he went to Boston in 2001 for post-doctoral studies at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, which is part of the Harvard University Medical School, and he stayed there until the end of 2003. Before that he worked with an acute pediatric lymphoblastic research group for the Clinical Cancer Genome program, which resulted in a long-term partnership with researchers from the Ribeirão Preto School of Medicine of the University of São Paulo.

When he returned to Brazil, he pursued a project that he had become interested in back in 1997: a way to quantify the number of leukemia cells remaining after one month of intensive chemotherapy. Based on the information on the number of cancer cells present in the medulla, physicians can adjust the treatment. “In those days, the analysis was done by microscope and the cells were differentiated according to their shape, a method that was not very sensitive,” he explains. With the research group from the Clinical Cancer Genome, Yunes began working on a project to use the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) method to quantify leukemia cells. The results of the research changed the protocol for treating leukemia in children in Brazil.