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Women in Science: Ana Maldonado-Contreras pivots gut microbiome studies to tackle COVID-19

Venezuela native inspired by family and academic mentors to pursue research career

By Susan E.W. Spencer and Kylee M. Denesha

UMass Medical School Communications

November 16, 2020

The Women in Science video series on UMassMed News highlights the many areas of research conducted by women at UMass Medical School.

Ana Maldonado-Contreras, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology & physiological systems, has been fascinated by the relationship between diet, bacteria in the gut and health throughout her career.

“My first clinical trials were with my siblings,” she recalled of her childhood interest in medicine, in her native Venezuela. “I thought I could cure them somehow by making concoctions of tea, putting some cream in, and that would cure their boo-boos.”

Dr. Maldonado-Contreras’s research is focused on the gut microbiome and chronic disease, in particular inflammatory bowel disease, which is believed to result from unbalanced gut bacteria and a misfiring immune system.

Since the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 arrived on the scene early in 2020, causing the respiratory illness COVID-19, which can also involve an overreactive immune response known as a cytokine storm, Maldonado-Contreras has pivoted to trying to understand how gut microbes can predispose patients to severe COVID complications.

The alarm bell first rang for Maldonado-Contreras when she returned to the UMass Medical School campus after the lockdown began, to retrieve her computer and other work items. “Just entering the school and seeing nobody was there, I felt very defeated,” she said. “We’re all raised to be smart and to be solving problems. And then this little microorganism is defeating us. So, I felt a responsibility as a scientist to do something about it.”

Maldonado-Contreras said early research showed that diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases were high predictors of severe COVID-19 infection, chronic diseases that she has been passionate about understanding through microbiome research.

“I started thinking about how the microbes in our gut can predispose us to have these underlying conditions and contribute to the cytokine storm that affects patients with severe COVID,” she said.

Calling on colleagues treating patients in the clinical system, Maldonado-Contreras began collecting samples for patients hospitalized with COVID-19, building a biorepository through which to analyze gut bacteria and presentation of disease.

She had already been involved in another trial working with doctors in the OB/GYN clinic, collecting samples from mothers and babies to investigate effects of perinatal diet on the babies’ microbiome. That research evolved too, to focus on mothers with a COVID diagnosis.

“We were interested in looking at consequences at the time of delivery and long-term consequences on the babies. These things tied back to how the microbes can facilitate or turn on immune response to pathogens or to an unbalanced microbiome,” Maldonado-Contreras said.

“We now know that the gut microbiome has an impact in systemic immune response, even in tuberculosis, and there was a recent study looking at how metabolites produced by the microbiome can impede the entrance of the same family of coronaviruses into the cell,” she continued. “So, there is a very tight interaction that we’re trying to understand in patients with severe COVID disease.”

Maldonado-Contreras’s journey to conducting cutting-edge research on one of the most urgent health problems of our time was inspired by her family and her academic mentors. She said she initially wanted to be a doctor, but her parents did not have the means to send her to medical school. Her grandmother was a teacher and urged Maldonado-Contreras to go into teaching, which would allow time to care for children at home. So, she pursued university studies in education and biology.

Biology grabbed her interest, though, nurtured through volunteering in professors’ labs. “I loved what they were doing. I loved the questions they were asking. It was fascinating that you could do things to answer questions,” she said.

Encouraged by her professors to pursue graduate studies in science, with support from a government scholarship, Maldonado-Contreras said the turning point in her career was a field trip to the Amazon to study how microbes in native communities helped people be healthy.

“I forgot about medicine altogether,” said Maldonado-Contreras. She saw herself “caring for patients by bringing knowledge to clinicians so they can apply it to patients.”

She said it’s not always easy for women as they climb the science career ladder. “The first challenge is when you’re a kid, right?” she said. “They say it’s not for you, you will never do math; you should get a job where you can take care of your kids.”

A supportive team of colleagues and mentors in her graduate programs and now at UMMS helped Maldonado-Contreras focus on work she wanted to do.

Still, she makes sure in faculty meetings that she puts “Doctor” before a woman’s name and acknowledges ideas raised by female colleagues, affording them respect that sometimes is implicitly overlooked.

She said, as a woman, “You have to make sure your voice is heard.”

Related stories on UMassMed News:
UMMS faculty recognized as Dr. Marcellette G. Williams Distinguished Scholars
Clinical trial examines IBD diet in third trimester of pregnancy
Scientists explore how novel diet eases inflammatory bowel disease
Maldonado-Contreras recognized by American Gastroenterological Association for gut microbiome research