Photo: Elin Lindström

Juan Lantero Rodriguez, writer of Thesis of the Year 2022

DISTINCTION. Juan Lantero Rodriguez, now a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Psychiatry and Neurochemistry, has been awarded the Faculty-wide “Thesis of the Year” distinction at Sahlgrenska Academy in 2022. In his thesis, he developed several new biomarkers for Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases that are measurable in blood samples.

The “Thesis of the Year at Sahlgrenska Academy” prize, awarded since 2009, is financed by a donation from Dr Amt Vestby's Research Foundation.

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Juan Lantero Rodriguez
Photo: Elin Lindström

“I’m happy and honored to receive this award. This is my first academic recognition, so I was very excited when I received the Award for my thesis,” Juan says when I meet him in the clinical neurochemistry research environment at Mölndal Hospital.

Stimulating environment

Juan arrived in Gothenburg from Madrid to take a Master's degree in molecular biology. When he started looking for a doctoral studentship, a friend tipped him off about the place in Blennow and Zetterberg’s lab. When he was appointed to the position, he had no experience of working on Alzheimer's disease.

“It’s a hugely stimulating environment to work in. We’re all pulling in the same direction, toward the same goal, and I’ve always been given lots of help from others in the lab, specifically by Dr’s Nicholas Ashton and Anniina Snellman. There’s no better place to be a doctoral student. That’s why I’ve also been able to contribute to so many important studies during my time here,” Juan says.

It is just over a year since he completed his thesis and, as a postdoctoral researcher in the group, he is currently working on some of the findings he presented in his thesis – one recently published in the Alzheimer’s & Dementia scientific journal. In the long run, Juan wants to significantly contribute to solving the puzzle of Alzheimer’s disease by developing highly specific tests for different brain pathologies.

Four new biomarkers

In his thesis, Lantero Rodriguez makes key contributions in non-invasive, cost-effective, and simple blood testing for Alzheimer's disease. He has used advanced mass spectrometry and immunoassays on various platforms to identify tau protein variants that might serve as biomarkers for Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases.

In the thesis, he presents the development of four different tau biomarkers. Three of these markers have been shown to be outstanding in identifying the progression of Alzheimer's disease in blood samples and, in addition, distinguishing this pathology from other neurological diseases. This work has contributed to make ever closer the long-sought goal of dementia evaluation in primary care – blood tests for Alzheimer's disease.

“The last part of the thesis is about a novel biomarker (NTA-tau) that was shown to be highly specific for tau pathology, which was highly needed in clinical settings, as a cost-effective tool for tracking tau pathology in living patients, and in clinical trials, as an inclusion/exclusion criterion or to monitor the downstream effects of anti-Aβ drugs. NTA-tau is the first tau pathology-specific biomarker that can be measured in blood,” Juan notes.

Some of the novel immunoassays included in his thesis have, in practice, been transferred to world-leading pharmaceutical companies, which have used them to evaluate novel disease-modifying therapies in Alzheimer's disease.

Numerous failures

The thesis contains five papers, but in collaboration with other researchers Juan has contributed to no fewer than 35 publications, most of them in well-regarded journals. However, although his time as a doctoral student has been extremely productive, his failures are still what he wants to highlight.

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Photo: Elin Lindström

“Research is driven forward by positive results, since results are what generate collaborations and research funding. But I think my failures have been my most important lessons,” he says.

For every successful test with an antibody, there are nine other experiments that have failed, he relates.

“My supervisors, Kaj Blennow and Henrik Zetterberg, have given me great freedom and support. They’ve never shown in any way that they thought I was clumsy or had bad ideas when an idea didn't work out. They’ve always been open when I’ve suggested a new antibody I want to test,” Juan says.

"Phenomenal scientist"

Juan's thesis was nominated for the award by supervisor Kaj Blennow, who describes the thesis as both comprehensive and profound. The works included in the thesis were published in top journals, including Lancet Neurology.

Kaj describes Juan as a phenomenal scientist, colleague, and person: "He is one of the most dedicated and talented young scientists I have had the pleasure of working with. In addition to performing his research at an exemplary level, he represents the best ideals of our institution, where we seek to develop the future generation of researchers, and he demonstrates an extraordinary commitment to people suffering neurodegenerative diseases."

The award ceremony for Thesis of the Year will take place on May 31st, for invited guests.

All seven winners

Sahlgrenska Academy
Juan Lantero Rodriguez: Novel cerebrospinal fluid and blood tau biomarkers in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Anna Wenger: Deregulated epigenetics and cancer stem cells in brain tumours;

Clinical Sciences
Axel Stenmark Tullberg: The use of immunological biomarkers to improve individualization of postoperative radiotherapy in breast cancer;

Malin Henriksson: Cause-Specific Mortality and Physical Fitness in Mental Disorders: Epidemiological and Interventional Studies;

Neuroscience and Physiology
Erik Lindgren: Cerebral Venous Thrombosis: Complications and Outcomes;

Anna Liss: Evidence-based dental hygienist practice in the non-surgical therapy of patients with periodontitis: outcomes of therapy and factors associated with the quality of care;

Health and Care Sciences
Matilda Cederberg: Supporting mental health: Effects, communicative processes and experiences of a person-centred eHealth intervention;