Francisco Saavedra Cantillana is a Pew Latin American Fellow

Francisco Saavedra Cantillana was still in grade school in his hometown of Santiago, Chile, when he first saw Back to the Future. While the notion of a freelance scientist converting a DeLorean into a time machine may be fantasy, the lifelong love of scientific discovery the movie sparked in Saavedra Cantillana was very real.

Initially intrigued by physics, Saavedra Cantillana followed his heart to biology, genetics, and biotechnology. Eventually, a fascination with proteins drew him to biochemistry. He earned a PhD at the Universidad Andrés Bello and studied the interplay of epigenetics and chromatin in the lab of Alejandra Loyola, PhD at Fundación Ciencia & Vida.

Saavedra Cantillana came to the University of Washington courtesy of a connection between his past and current mentors, Dr. Loyola and ISCRM faculty member Thelma Escobar, PhD, who crossed paths in the lab of Danny Reinberg at NYU. In 2021, Escobar invited Saavedra Cantillana to join her lab, where he is now a postdoctoral researcher.

In June 2022, Saavedra Cantillana added another accolade to his career when he was named one of ten 2022 Pew Latin American Fellows in the Biomedical Sciences. As a fellow, he receives two years of funding, mentorship from prominent biomedical scientists, and additional funding to start his own lab in Chile.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts website, “The Pew Latin American Fellows Program in the Biomedical Sciences provides support for young scientists from Latin America to receive postdoctoral training in the United States. The program gives these individuals an opportunity to further their scientific knowledge by promoting exchange and collaboration between investigators in the United States and Latin America resulting in advances in research in Latin America.”

“I am motivated by making discoveries in the lab – and if they lead to new treatments, even better,” says Saavedra Cantillana. “That’s the ideal part of science. It’s about investigating questions and developing new tools with the knowledge you generate. The fellowship says that my research is important and that gives me confidence in my career.”

The Escobar Lab combines stem cell biology, immune biology, and biochemistry to study chromatin (the raw material that the body uses to build chromosomes) and histones – the proteins that help package chromosomes into the nucleus of a cell. Escobar and her team aim to understand how chromatin and histones preserve cellular memory beyond the instructions already encoded in DNA.

“I met Francisco at the 2019 Cold Spring Harbor Epigenetics Meeting when he was a senior graduate student,” says Escobar. “A year later, I reached out to Francisco to see if he would be interested in joining my team. His knowledge of chromatin biochemistry makes him a tremendous asset for our lab. He is a genuinely nice person, who helps train new graduate students and leads our collaboration with the Doulatov Lab. I am honored to be his mentor.”

The Pew Fellowship will allow Saavedra Cantillana to explore how changes in chromatin associated with the gene NPM1 may contribute to acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The hypothesis is that the gene plays an important role in the differentiation of mature blood cells through the ongoing process of blood cell formation. Saavedra Cantillana will test this hunch using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), CRISPR gene editing, and genomic analysis. The goal is to reveal insights that could point cancer researchers toward new therapies for AML.

At the end of the two year fellowship, Saavedra Cantillana plans to return to Chile to launch his own lab, and to continue to study how alterations in a person’s biochemistry relate to leukemia and other cancers. He also hopes to help recruit young scientists into biomedical research.  “It’s important for people starting out to have someone who supports them and gives them information. I want to do that for the next generation, just like others helped me.”