Meet obesity and diabetes specialist, Professor Sonia Fernandez Veledo


Sonia Fernandez Veledo, Associate Professor of Physiology at the School of Medicine, Universitat Rovira I Virgili, studies the causes of obesity and type 2 diabetes and carries out research on new treatments to help improve patient care. She will be presenting her plenary lecture “Harnessing the microbiome in metabolic disease”, which delves in to the details of her research, during e-ECE 2020 on Monday 7 September at 19:00. In this interview, find out more about her career and read her valuable words of wisdom.

Can you tell us a little about your career path?

I received my bachelor´s degree in biochemistry from the University of Barcelona, where I also completed my doctoral thesis in biomedicine. After developing a solid molecular base during my postdoctoral period in several research centers in Madrid and La Jolla, I started my independent career at Institut d´Investigació Sanitària Pere Virgili, a reference research centre for biomedical research and clinical translation in nutrition and metabolism. Currently, I am leading DIAMET Lab and I am also Associate Professor of Physiology at the School of Medicine, Universitat Rovira I Virgili, Spain.

Can you tell us about your research?

My research is currently focused on developing a deeper understanding of the aetiology of obesity and type 2 diabetes (T2D), which should open new horizons for the development of novel treatments. To address this, I have directed my efforts to converge knowledge from different fields through the assembly of a multi-disciplinary team of biologists and medical researchers. Our main goal is to carry out ground-breaking work on novel therapeutic approaches and clinical tools. We also work to improve the early diagnosis of T2D in the general population, even before the appearance of classical symptoms and signs.

What you are most proud of in your career so far?

My career and passion is to bridge the gap between basic and clinical science to truly improve the patient´s life. I´m proud to be a biomedical researcher with experience in bench-to-bedside research and to lead a multidisciplinary research team. We tackle scientific questions with a patient-orientated perspective, but at the same time deepen our understanding of the pathophysiological mechanisms underlying the aetiology of the disease. I am very proud of my team, all of them are highly motivated and committed to our research.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your research?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, our country closed all research centres and universities, as the government regrettably did not consider them as an essential sector. Only those projects directly related to COVID-19 were allowed to continue. This has inevitably delayed the development of all of our projects, which has seriously affected those related to patients’ follow-up. I have had to reorient our way of working, implementing new tools such as teleworking and video conferences. We have also been taking advantage of this time to advance paperwork, review the literature and finish writing papers and projects.

What are you presenting during your lecture at e-ECE 2020?

Discovering new metabolic regulators whose dysregulation triggers obesity and T2D has become one of my major topics of research. My lecture is focused on metabolites as signalling molecules, and I will present our recent cutting-edge studies about succinate, a microbiota-derived metabolite with a key role in the pathophysiology of obesity and T2D. I will explain how specific changes in local gut microbiota (i.e. probiotic interventions), which modulate circulating succinate, might improve glucose homeostasis. Our data offer a new perspective of this metabolite, which has long been perceived as a danger signal, as well as demonstrate its great potential as a predictive biomarker in the context of metabolic disorders.

Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to at this year’s Congress?

This year´s program is fascinating and covers all the most important topics of current endocrinology. From a more personal point of view, I am looking forward to listening to all my colleagues working in the field of obesity and related comorbidities.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in your research area right now?

Obesity is a chronic disease that requires a multifaceted approach, including lifestyle measures and pharmacological treatments to also improve the comorbid conditions, such as hyperglycaemia. Traditional interventions have not been effective and the efficacy of current obesity medications is limited. For T2D management, despite the available variety of drugs, the response varies between individuals and treatment failure frequently occurs after long periods. Numerous patients remain with hyperglycaemia, which is responsible for severe, acute and long-term complications. Thus, it is absolutely necessary for clinical practice to simultaneously tackle excess weight and glycaemic control.

There is a real need for more global and holistic approaches to move on from traditional “silo thinking” to explore alternative conceptual approaches. Moreover, the identification of individuals at high risk of developing T2D is of great importance, as early interventions might delay or even prevent full-blown disease. In this context, the use of artificial intelligence as a new instrument to combine clinical, nutritional and anthropometric characteristics of subjects and predict T2D risk, could be of great interest

What do you think will be the next major breakthrough in your field?

This is hard to predict, especially for complex diseases such as obesity and T2D, whose prevalence continues to grow despite the growing knowledge and the intensive efforts at social and research level. However, I am pretty sure both predictive and precision medicine are the future for tackling these diseases.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I really enjoy trying to find answers to scientific questions, discussing the data with my team and sharing knowledge with the scientific community. Building knowledge that can be transferred to society and improving people's health, inspires me to become a better researcher.

Who do you most admire professionally, and why?

I admire my mentors and collaborators throughout my professional career, but above all, I admire all my Spanish colleagues, who continue working to improve Spanish R&D despite the economic difficulties and little governmental support.

Any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologists?

I would encourage them to devote themselves to research integrating academia with the clinic. This means you can raise scientific questions starting from the perspective of the patient but with the final aim to truly understand the pathophysiology of diseases. They should also open their minds to new perspectives for metabolic control. In order to move forward, endocrinologists need to take back the initiative in the study of pathologies such as obesity and T2D.

You can hear Sonia Fernandez Veledo's Plenary Lecture, “Harnessing the microbiome in metabolic disease” on Monday 7 September at 19:00. Find out more about e-ECE 2020 and register today.

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