Dr. Maite Huarte

By Dr. Sara Zaccara

Dr. Maite Huarte is a group leader at the CIMA Institute in Pamplona, Spain. Dr. Huarte obtained her PhD at the National Center of Biotechnology in Madrid under Amelia Nieto’s supervision. She then did her postdoctoral training first with Dr. Yang Shi at the Harvard Medical School and then with Dr. John Rinn at the Broad Institute in Boston, USA.

During her research career, Dr. Huarte has made important contributions in the field of long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs). These RNAs are transcribed and processed similarly to mRNAs. However, compared to mRNAs, lncRNAs are non-translated into functional proteins. These RNAs have been discovered only recently, thus, we are still in the early stages of their functional and physiological characterization. As Dr. Huarte explains: “We have witnessed a rapid evolution of the lncRNA field. We have passed from the exciting times of the early discoveries, when we started to become aware of the existence of thousands of transcripts with unknown functions, to a more mature scenario. Now, studies focus more and more on the detailed mechanistic dissection of lncRNA functions, which requires rigorous combination of multidisciplinary research, that will slowly uncover principles that may apply to different classes of functional lncRNAs.”

During her postdoctoral studies in Dr. John Rinn’s lab, Dr. Huarte identified, for the first time, the set of lncRNAs induced by the tumor suppressor p53. In remembering her scientific breakthrough, she said: “We hypothesized that lncRNAs could be functional, but some people thought they would just be byproducts of transcription. I clearly remember the first gene expression analysis that I did after knocking down lincRNA-p21, one of these lncRNAs regulated by p53. It showed a striking upregulation of the genes of the p53 pathway. It was a very exciting moment. Showing that lncRNAs are functional components of such an important tumor suppressor pathway would have important implications.”

"Research is not an easy path, and in order to succeed you need to ask the right questions and be able to deal with frustration when answers don’t come. It takes time and daily dedication, but it will pay off at the end."

She opened her independent lab in 2011. Dr. Huarte and her group have invested great effort to elucidate how different lncRNA molecules affect cells fate, by helping them generate distinctive phenotypes. Much of her work has focused on the role of lncRNAs as chromatin regulators and as cis-regulators of promoter-enhancer activation. She is very interested in “understanding how lncRNAs impact processes such as DNA replication and genomic instability. We have found interesting connections between lncRNA and key factors that control DNA replication and the response to replication stress. We are very excited, since these pathways are at the core of cancer biology and may help us understand it better and hopefully improve the current treatments.”  

She always remembers the incredible support and advice of all her mentors Dr. John Rinn at the Broad Institute, Dr. Yang Shi at Harvard Medical School and Dr. Amelia Nieto at the National Center for Biotechnolgy (Spain). In particular, she recalls the “very basic and funny advice” she got at the very beginning of her training from her PhD advisor Dr. Amelia Nieto: “you can do experiments without tubes, but not without controls!”

She describes her positive attitude and her passion for science as her distinctive features. She believes that: “When projects don’t progress as expected, papers are scooped, or grants rejected, you have to keep working and things will get better. Let it not affect you too much.” Similarly, when asked about her key advice for trainees, she explains that “Research is not an easy path, and in order to succeed you need to ask the right questions and be able to deal with frustration when the answers don’t come. It takes time and daily dedication, but it will pay off at the end.”

Considering her scientific path, Dr. Huarte mentions how she struggled finding a balance between her private and professional life. “I believe that the most difficult moments were those when I had to make important decisions about my career, like choosing the place to establish myself as an independent PI. Science is a very important part of my life, but so is my personal life, especially my family. Finding a good balance was a determinant in my decisions”. She adds: “some of my career decisions were influenced by my view of life as a woman and mother. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in the highly competitive context of science, this might have become a disadvantage.”

She is “quite aware of the extra difficulties that women need to overcome to succeed in science. We see that women are not pursuing scientific careers as much as they should. I believe this is due to wrong conceptions and attitudes that are recorded in our female brain from a very young age. To change this, young girls need to feel capable of being leaders”. She is actively involved in different activities to promote women in science. For example, she is a member of a committee supporting women in science for the Spanish Society of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, and she organizes a mentoring program for female scientists.

Dr. Huarte likes to participate in RNA Society meetings because they are “truly international and inclusive.” She also mentions that the “RNA Society allows the connection of researchers that otherwise wouldn’t get to know each other because of their geographic origin. It creates good opportunities to show our work and establish collaborations. It is also great for students to open their views to a broad range of RNA science.”

When asked about her favorite RNA, she cannot hide her bias towards lncRNAs. “If I have to pick one or two, I would say those induced by p53, like lincRNA-p21 and Linc-PINT.” Similarly, in picking her favorite papers published in an RNA Society’s journal, she mentions “a series of papers about the MALAT1 lncRNA structure, function, and subcellular localization from several groups (Prasnth, Steitz, Hirose, Akimitsu, Diedrichs)”.

You can find Dr. Huarte on Twitter @MaiteHuarteLab and contact her via links at her lab website: https://cima.cun.es/en/research/research-programs/genic-therapy-research-programs/group-non-coding-rna-regulation-cancer-genome