Lucia Tabares Q & A

We now interview Lucia Tabares from the University of Seville, Spain, who is working on how levels of SMN protein affect the neuromuscular junction.

When and why did you first decide you wanted to be a scientist/clinician?

It just came naturally. I have always been curious about how things work, and Science allows you to search for answers to some of the most interesting questions. So when I had the chance, I decided to study Medicine and joined the Physiology Department as an undergraduate.

How did you come to work on SMA?

During a sabbatical year in the USA, I started working on an adult-onset motor neuron disease similar to SMA, called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or motor neurone disease (MND). Soon I became interested in applying my knowledge to SMA research in order to study how low levels of the SMN protein affect neurotransmission at the neuromuscular junction (NMJ). Neurotransmission is the name given to nerve signal transduction, and it is the process that allows nerve cells to communicate with other nerve cells or cell types. Electrical signals are passed down the lower motor neurons until they reach their target muscle fibres. Here, at this specialised junction between the nerve and muscle, known as the NMJ, the electrical signal is converted to a chemical signal, which is then able to cause muscle contraction.

What would you be if you weren't a scientist/clinician?

I would have liked to have a talent for music.

If you are not in the lab or seeing patients, you are...

I like horses, so I go riding once a week. I also like reading, gardening, and cooking for my family and friends.

Describe yourself in three words

Tenacious, calm, loyal.

What has been the most important moment of your career so far?

The present - I usually don’t look back much. As a scientist, every day has its excitement.  

What is your most memorable finding relating to SMA?

Our results show that reduced SMN protein levels in SMA model mice result in a number of changes at the NMJ affecting both its structure and function. The ends of the lower motor neurons that connect with the muscle fibres show reduced amounts of neurotransmitter, fewer sites for the release of neurotransmitter into the neuromuscular synapse, fewer mitochondria for energy production, and poor overall structure, amongst other things. These structural flaws result in functional defects impairing the ability of this specialised synapse to release neurotransmitter, and therefore cause muscle contraction. Together with colleagues, we found that the SMN protein is very important for the development and maintenance of the NMJ at early postnatal ages. However, how these changes are related to the degeneration of the lower motor neurons remains to be determined.

What is your favourite conference location?

Seville is a fantastic place for a meeting in the spring.

What is the best scientific advice you have ever received?

Basic research is the foundation for knowledge, and applied research should be based in solid knowledge. I also like: there are many interesting things but few are important.

If you could start your career all over again, are there things you would do differently?

Uh… not really important ones.

In your opinion, what makes a good scientist?

Honesty, dedication, and a good mind.

Where do you see the SMA research field in the next 10 years?

The link between low levels of the SMN protein and the very specific lower motor neuron degeneration will be much better understood. I also think that SMA will be diagnosed much earlier, allowing new drugs and gene therapies (such as antisense oligonucleotides that increase SMN protein production from the backup SMN2 gene) to be successfully developed and trialled that will at the very least reduce the severity of the disease.