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Synapses without borders

Group from Unifesp encourages collaboration in studies into epilepsy. This is the seventh in a series of reports on the internationalization of scientific research in São Paulo

Over the last 10 days of February, a group of 70 students and 20 professors and tutors met together in a hotel in Guarulhos to discuss scientific advances related to the interaction of epilepsy with behavior and cognition. With representatives from 12 Latin American countries, plus Mozambique and Spain the group heard a veritable marathon of 55 presentations given by specialists from countries such as Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Colombia, Uruguay, Canada, the United States, Argentina, Denmark, Honduras and Chile. The keynote speech was given by Dr. Peter Wolf, director of the Danish Epilepsy Center and president between 2005 and 2009 of the International League against Epilepsy, which brings together more than 5000 of the world’s doctors and scientists. This was the fifth edition of the Latin American Summer School in Epilepsy (Lasse), a short international course that every year discusses a new topic related to the illness that attacks 1% of the world’s population, 80% of whom live in developing countries. Students on the course were also divided up into working groups that, at the end of the event, prepared proposals for future research projects.

Lasse, which received support from FAPESP in the modality “Help for the organization”, is one of the tools used by neuro-scientist, Esper Abrão Cavalheiro, 61, head of the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), to maintain the high standing his group has achieved since the 90s, when he developed an experimental model for studying epilepsy that is currently used in the United States, England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Australia. The model, created jointly with Pole, Lechoslaw Turski, is a method for inducing convulsions in laboratory animals by the injection of pilocarpine, an alkaloid extracted from the leaves of the jaborandi, a shrub that is native to Brazil. It is able to repeatedly induce convulsions that may even lead to a loss of consciousness. The model reproduces the sequence of events that characterize epilepsy of the temporal lobe, which is responsible for 70% of the epilepsy seen in humans. Using this model, it was possible to establish, for example, the steps that lead to a child who has suffered a major head injury, or who has also had a serious infection of the nervous system, developing epilepsy many years later.

MARCIA MINILLOEsper Cavalheiro: partnerships and an international courseMARCIA MINILLO

Real scale
Maintaining international collaboration is fundamental for any researcher, observes Cavalheiro. “Contact with peers from other countries means that you can see the real scale of your participation in the advance of knowledge and can understand the exact size of things. The union of brains amplifies the research results”, says the neuroscientist, who is a graduate in medicine and has a Master’s degree and PhD in molecular biology from Unifesp and did post-doctoral studies at France’s National Scientific Research Center and at Rome’s Università degli Studi, Italy. In 1983, he was responsible for creating the first Brazilian center for the study of experimental neurology at the Paulista School of Medicine, today Unifesp, with the objective of studying the physio-pathological mechanisms that are linked to various neurological disturbances.

According to Cavalheiro, creating a network of collaborators is no easy task – and the relative facility with which he manages to attract researchers from abroad to events and to collaborate with him is a recent triumph. “The first major international meeting I arranged was in Manaus in the 1980’s and I had to overcome the distrust of many colleagues, who were afraid of tropical diseases and who said that the scientific quality would be small,” he remembers. The researcher has already supervised some 60 Master’s degree and PhD students and published more than 220 articles in specialist journals. “The strategy of collaborating with researchers from other countries was vital for the evolution of my group. Today my students and former students are internationally recognized and invited to give talks in other countries. We’re players”, says Cavalheiro, who also has a parallel career in science and technology: he was secretary of Policies and Programs at the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT) between 1999 and 2001, president of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) from 2001 to 2003 and since 2005 he has been an advisor to the president of the Strategic Studies Management Center (CGEE), a social organization linked to the MCT, in Brasília.

Cavalheiro’s group at Unifesp has partnerships with institutions in various countries, including the Institute of Neurology in Milan, the Institute of Neurosciences at the University of Coimbra, the University of California, Los Angeles, and George Mason University, near Washington. He routinely receives foreign visitors. “Many researchers from abroad come to us to do post-doctoral studies or even their PhDs. Various international groups are interested in cooperating with our group,” he says. In October 2010, Vassiliy Tsytsarev, a neuroscientist from George Mason University, spent two weeks in Cavalheiro’s laboratory, sponsored by FAPESP in the modality “Help for visitors from abroad.” Born and educated in Russia and with experience as a researcher in Japan where he did two post-doctoral courses, Vassiliy settled in the United States in 2005. He is working with animal models to study epilepsy and for some time he has been corresponding with Cavalheiro, whose scientific production he already knew about. The contact led to an invitation to visit Brazil. “I was very impressed with the working environment in the laboratory,” said Vassiliy. “Despite the limited time we had we were able to try a new visualization technique for epileptic crises in the cerebral cortex of anesthetized rats. These methods were based on different levels of light reflection in the oxygenated and unoxygenated cerebral tissue, which allows us to see activated and non-activated areas of the surface of the brain”, says the researcher, who wants to keep on collaborating actively. “There are great prospects for biomedical sciences in Brazil and I’d very much like to be a part of this. I hope to keep on working with Unifesp,” he says.

Center of reference
In mid-2009, Emilio R. Garrido-Sanabria, director of the Epilepsy Research Laboratory at the University of Texas, Brownsville, spent a month in São Paulo, also thanks to help from FAPESP. “The laboratory of Professor Cavalheiro is an internationally recognized reference center in epilepsy. For many years, it has been highly productive, which has translated into a large number of pieces of work being published in indexed journals. One of the advantages of visiting Cavalheiro’s laboratory was the opportunity of collaborating with him in determining the physiological, anatomical and molecular phases linked to susceptibility to crises in new animal models that only exist in his laboratory”, he says. Unifesp is an important point of reference in the trajectory of Garrido-Sanabria. A graduate from the Havana Higher Institute of Medical Sciences in Cuba, Esper Cavalheiro was his supervisor between 1995 and 1999 when he was doing his PhD, with a scholarship from the CNPq, and between 1999 and 2001 when he was doing post-doctoral studies, with funding from FAPESP. After this, he settled in the United States. On his recent trip to Brazil he entered into collaboration agreements that involved other Brazilian groups and resulted in work that was recently accepted for publication in the journal, Neuroscience, and also in a review article on limbic epilepsy published in Frontiers of Biosciences, in which, in addition to Unifesp, researchers from the Federal University of Santa Maria, in Rio Grande do Sul, participated. The only sour note he observed in Brazil, according to the researcher, was the difficulty in importing antibodies and reagents, even though there are funds for them. “The result is a delay in obtaining inputs and an increase in prices in the middle of the process,” he says.

Esper Cavalheiro praises the favorable environment in the country for attracting talent from abroad. “We’re pretty generous. The scholarships offered by FAPESP are higher than those from Capes and the CNPq and São Paulo attracts post-doctoral students,” he states. The international penetration in his group means that he frequently receives foreign students and sends Brazilian students abroad. “I have a student who has just got back from Spain and last year another was in France,” he reveals. “We’ve had a lot of people from France, Italy, the Ivory Coast and Portugal doing part of their PhD studies here,” says the professor, who is now preparing to receive two PhD students from Cameroon who have scholarships from the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS).