‘Life-changing’ pharma research to develop the next generation of contraceptives

26 Oct 2021

Image: Mariana Silva

Contraceptives in the form of long-acting injectables could be transformative for the world’s poorest nations. Here’s how one researcher is helping to make them widely available.

“I believe that we come to this world for a reason and that we should leave the world better than when we found it,” says researcher Mariana Hugo Silva.

This philosophy, and a wealth of experience, is what brings this Portuguese researcher to be part of the EU’s LongActNow research project, which aims to develop long-acting medicines for complex therapeutics.

In her career, Silva has worked across research groups in microbiology, immunology, physics and world heritage. She has worked in Spain, Sweden and Belgium and now finds herself doing her PhD research at the Bernal Institute in University of Limerick and with Janssen Pharmaceuticals.

Her research interests encompass nanotechnology, infectious disease, tissue engineering and biomaterials but it is her work developing crystalline drug microparticles that she shared at the FameLab science communication competition. These particles can be used to develop long-acting injectables, which could transform access to contraceptives in low and middle-income countries.

‘No country in the last 50 years has emerged from poverty without expanding access to contraceptives’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I was born in Coimbra, Portugal, also known as the ‘Cidade dos Estudantes’ (the ‘City of the Students’) with one of the oldest universities in Europe. As a child my weekends were spent with my family visiting the university’s museums, exhibitions and any other activities planned by the university, such as stargazing or plays with science themes. This allowed me to develop a connection with science. I became curious to learn more about new topics.

You could say that from an early age I wanted to go to university and become a scientist, but I never thought that I would pursue a PhD. However, during my master’s I became passionate about research and wanted to keep working on it, but at the same time explore different fields. So I worked in different research groups and one thing became clear: regardless of the field, I always enjoyed being in the lab, running my experiments, analysing data and find new questions. Research was certainly my future, so here I am.

How was your experience with FameLab?

During FameLab we were asked to think outside of the box. Innovative projects were presented in a metaphorical way, a lot of ideas were exchanged and, hopefully, unexpected friendships were forged. It was amazing to meet the community, see how big it is and what science communication can contribute towards the construction of a more involved society.

When you participate in these kinds of events, you aim to inspire the next generation of scientists – and women scientists especially – even just by telling your story and sharing experiences. By deconstructing complex fields into simple ideas, everything can be understood by everyone. It is pretty awesome!

How would you sum up your FameLab presentation?

The project I’m working on aims to develop a new generation of long-acting injectables (LAIs). This means that instead of taking a certain drug in the oral form (ie as a tablet), the drug is injected, just like a vaccine. Due to the properties inherent to crystalline drug microparticles, the drug is released during a certain number of months, instead of taking a daily pill.

In my talk I focused on how LAIs can be used as contraceptives to empower women and contribute towards getting low and middle-income countries out of poverty. There’s a need for new contraceptives that have fewer side effects, last longer and cost less, so that a woman can get them in her own village or take by herself in her home. My contribution to solving this problem is to develop new technologies to produce the drug particles for the LAIs, so that the overall result is better.

Why did you choose to focus on long-acting injectables as contraceptives?

The most fascinating thing about LAIs is that they can have a broad range of applications, such as contraception, treatment or control of psychological disorders, tuberculosis, cancer and chronic diseases, among others. Furthermore, low-income countries could secure better healthcare without requiring lots of resources, both human and financial. LAIs have the power to change lives.

In low and middle-income countries, the low availability of contraceptives leads to millions of unintended pregnancies. When women have the ability to time and space their pregnancies, it unlocks a virtuous cycle of prosperity for families and countries. Babies are almost twice as likely to survive their first year, and 35pc more likely to see their fifth birthday. When children reach their potential, they don’t end up poor. This is how families and countries get out of poverty. In fact, no country in the last 50 years has emerged from poverty without expanding access to contraceptives.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in science communication?

I think the main challenge in science communication is to communicate the right amount of information in the right amount of time. So, when it came to reducing a whole project to three minutes, it was tricky.

However, there’s loads of fun involved in the process of science communication and preparing for a talk. During the brainstorming process, there are simple triggers in the most mundane things that make you create the crazy or interesting moments; sometimes consciously, others unconsciously. It is a funny process and I invite everyone to try it more often.

What common misconceptions about science would you like to correct?

I usually don’t like to generalise, but I think that people need to be made aware that scientists are not lab rats. There are even fields that don’t require you being in the lab.

Also, the science that’s currently happening and the knowledge being produced is contributing towards the construction of a better and brighter future. We work day and night to try and get the answers to current problems and find solutions. And if there was no apparent problem, we’ll find one!

Something that became quite clear during the Covid-19 pandemic is the importance of clinical trials. For the development of any kind of treatment, clinical trials should involve people from different age groups and genders, but also different ethnicities. For the last few decades, all medicines (no matter what shape or form) have been tailored for white people. This needs to change. Everyone needs to be included so that the same effect can be obtained across all populations. This is the path to take going forward.

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