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Home Filipino Achievers Lourdes J. Cruz, an exceptional Filipina Scientist

Lourdes J. Cruz, an exceptional Filipina Scientist

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The L’ORÉAL-UNESCO For Women in Science partnership awarded five exceptional women scientists from around the world who received the 2010 L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Awards in the Life Sciences.

An international network of nearly 1,000 scientists nominates the candidates for each year’s awards. The five laureates are then selected at a meeting of the jury presided by Pr. Günter Blobel, Nobel Prize in Medicine 1999. Among the 2010 laureate is our very own Lourdes J. Cruz, Professor at the Marine Science Institute at the University of the Philippines Diliman, for the discovery of marine snail toxins that can serve as powerful tools to study brain function.

In the United States, Lourdes Cruz received a Master’s and Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Iowa. After working at the International Research Institute, an NGO in Los Baños, Philippines, in 1970 she began teaching biochemistry at the University of the Philippines. She was named professor in 1977 and chaired the university’s biochemistry and molecular

biology department from 1980 to 1986. In 2006, she received the National Scientist Award, the Philippine government’s highest distinction in recognition of outstanding scientific achievement. In addition to publishing over 100 articles on her research, Professor Cruz has filed 13 patents in the US, and she recently presented a report on “Gender, Science and Technology in the Philippines”.

“As a citizen of the Philippines, I am very concerned about the persistent high poverty level in rural areas, particularly among disadvantaged communities like the indigenous tribes, women farmers, and fisher folks.”

“In 2001,” she explains, “I established the Rural Livelihood Incubator program to try to mobilize science and technology to alleviate poverty.” Determined to improve the lives of individuals in her community, she plans to use the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award money to buy a piece of land to serve as a new base for the Rural LINC program, and a site for the women’s fruit processing facility that will preserve local heritage. “This project involves building a fruit processing facility run by women farmers, where the indigenous tribes can sell fruits from the orchards and forest trees.”

A woman and a scientist who never loses sight of the need to solve practical problems to improve people’s lives, Lourdes Cruz is personally very active in addressing poverty in the Philippines: “After devoting all my time to a relatively productive scientific career, I asked myself what have I really done to help my country and my countrymen, particularly the poor communities?”

Highly prized by seashell connoisseurs, cone snails are marine gastropod molluscs that live in the shallow waters of tropical oceans. In seven out of ten cases, the venom of certain species can be fatal. Yet for researchers, venom is also seen as a kind of “chemical factory” in the natural world, and they are often used as a source of inspiration for research.

In the 1970s, Professor Cruz was one of the first to research the toxins of these marine snails. By elucidating the structure and functioning of conotoxins, she provided the medical world with some powerful tools for researching the nervous system. In medicine, these toxins serve as components for developing drugs to fight pain, epilepsy and other neurological disorders. For example, Prialt, a more powerful alternative to morphine but without the side effects, is used for the treatment of severe pain, particularly in patients with cancer or certain types of neuropathies. Another toxin, conantokin, is being studied for its potential as an anti-convulsive for treating epilepsy. In addition to her devotion to laboratory work, Lourdes Cruz is also an active citizen committed to helping society. In 2001, she started the Rural Livelihood Incubator (Rural Linc) with the help of volunteers and private funding. Rural Linc strives to create jobs and fight poverty and socio-political instability over the long term in the rural areas of the Philippines.

Professor Cruz is an internationally recognized expert in marine toxicology and a specialist in cone snails (genus Conus). Living in tropical seas, these marine snails use their toxic venom to paralyse their prey: fish, marine worms and other snails. Each type of venom contains roughly 100 to 200 different agents. With over 700 species of cone snails, conus venom is a real gold mine of over 100,000 neuroactive molecules.

The four other awardees were Rashika El Ridi (Africa & the Arab States): Professor at Cairo University in Egypt, for paving the way towards the development of a vaccine against the tropical disease Schistomiasis/Bilharzia; Elaine Fuchs (North America): Professor at The Rockefeller University in the United States, for her contributions to our knowledge of skin biology and skin stem cells; Anne Dejean-Assémat (Europe): Professor at the Pasteur Institute in France, for her contributions to our understanding of leukaemia and liver cancers; and  Alejandra Bravo (Latin America): Professor at the Institute of Molecular Microbiology of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma in Mexico, for her work on a bacterial toxin that acts as a powerful insecticide.

The awards ceremony took place last March 4, 2010 at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. Each Laureate receives US $100,000 in recognition of her contribution to the advancement of science.

 

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