Raquel Seruca, vice-president of IPATIMUP and a specialist in gastric cancer research, advocates the importance of genetics in sleep study, noting studies showing that the decrease in the amount of sleep leads to increased wear on chromosome end regions and even to increased DNA damage in many tissues, such as the lungs and colon.
It is now known for sure that genes influence sleep. It is an important discovery…
There are some genetic diseases with severe sleep disturbances, which is the case of Angelman syndrome. In this context there is a widespread hyperactivity associated with mental retardation, and these children cannot sleep. These situations have an impact not only on the affected individuals but also on family dynamics, with catastrophic effects. I refer this particular case because we already know the gene, and the disease is monogenic (caused by a single genetic event).
You are a researcher in the molecular field, mainly linked to research on gastric cancer. I believe that molecular mechanisms in sleep are poorly understood…
As in gastric cancer, which is several diseases with varied molecular basis, I think that sleep is also a general term based on several complex molecular profiles with different clinical aspects. If we find significant associations between specific molecular profiles and distinct aspects of sleep, genetics might help stratifying patients and the therapeutic use.
Although you are not a sleep specialist, would you guess, given your scientific sensitivity, that insomnia has a biological or rather a social dominance?
I would say both. Insomnia is a complex disease, which should be addressed according to the genetic susceptibility and the environment, like all complex diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases or cancer. In extreme cases it may be a purely genetic disease, in which case the clinical analysis of families could be the starting point for investigation.
The DNA of tsetse flies was deciphered a few months ago. To what extent will this influence the fight against sleep disorders?
It is interesting and, in extreme situations, the gene may be the same and therefore the analysis of the fly gene can provide greater insight into the human body.
There are theories arguing that throughout evolution humans have had adaptive advantages for sleeping, either because they were saving energy, or because they ran less risk of accidents…
It is a beautiful theory as a model, but I am not sure whether someone has already modelled this concept in evolutionary terms.
The modern world makes many people sleep less and less. Are we dangerously challenging our biological clock?
We are certainly challenging our mood and our good relationships. On the scientific level the question is whether the reduction in the amount of sleep has an effect on biological signs of aging. There are recent studies showing an association between lack of sleep and clear signs of cellular aging, which would be a huge scientific breakthrough. Indeed, it was found that the decrease in the amount of sleep leads to increased wear of the end regions of chromosomes called telomeres, while increasing the number of DNA damage in many tissues, such as the lungs and colon.
In the 80s, when you were in medical school, was there some awareness of sleep hygiene behaviours?
As a child I was always told that “early to bed and early to rise makes and man healthy, wealthy and wise”. In my home this saying dictated the laws of sleep. I always went to bed early and always got up early. I sometimes say I turn into a pumpkin from midnight on. As far as I can remember, medical students did not have that many nights out.
I know that before turning to research, your residency was at São João Hospital in Oporto. How would you describe the experience?
I enjoyed it a lot, but I was very disturbed by the social aspects of disease and misery, which I encountered daily. Had I continued in medicine, I would be inclined to medical emergencies specialist or the great psychiatry.
What made you turn to research?
The curiosity, adventure and excitement involved in working on things that we know nothing about.
You lived in Holland for a few years, working as a researcher. How was the experience? I worked in the genetics department of the University of Groningen. I really enjoyed that time because it was there that I gave the first steps as a researcher and learned the first “letters” of the genetics’ laboratory. It was exciting.
Are the Dutch sleeping habits very different from those of the Portuguese?
They are very different, children go to bed quite early, as adults, and they also get up very early. They sleep with the curtains open in order to follow the light cycles. They also eat much earlier. I do not know if they are healthier. In the Netherlands a common complaint is to be stressed.
You are a researcher in IPATIMUP for 26 years now, and you are also vice-chairman of this institute. It must have been a very rewarding job…
I love working in IPATIMUP. It is a dynamic, creative, competitive and supportive institution. It is a model institution, in my opinion.
The IPATIMUP is one of our most prestigious scientific institutions in the country and abroad. What has been the secret?
Good management and great leadership, with highly committed people in a joint project and several individual projects.
In 2014 you won the Femina Award for Merit in Science. Women are becoming increasingly successful in the field of scientific research…
But that does not depend on being women. I do not easily accept this privileged account by gender. People who are creative, hard-working and abiding are successful, regardless of gender.
You were a member of the National Ethics Council. What kind of issues did you encounter? Why did you resign from the post in 2013?
I worked on research on embryonic stem cells that never saw the light of day, the living will and “surrogate mothers”, as well as the rationalization of health spending. I left because I had a somewhat different opinion about the methods being followed in analysing some issues that were being addressed at the time. I was replaced by a highly competent person, Professor João Ramalho Santos, who is an excellent scientist.
Do you fall asleep easily?
I literally fall to the side.
How many hours do you sleep per night?
It depends on the days, but usually around 7 hours. Sometimes I am very sleepy after lunch and I get 10-15 minutes of sleep in order to be able to continue. They say I am sometimes sleeping with my eyes open.
Have you ever had insomnia? Did you count sheep? Or does no one do that?
I have had insomnia many times, but I do not count sheep, I get up and do something to entertain myself.
Do you ever wake up in the night or in the morning with an idea related to scientific work? Do you usually register it?
Yes, I sometimes register it. Other times it just stays in my head and when I get to IPATIMUP and share it, I always get the same comment: “Look, she had nice dreams today”.
Do you recall some point in your life in which sleep has been good adviser?
I am very effusive and I often share my thoughts, but sleeping on a problem can be a very positive thing. It has often restrained my primary impulses.
Literature is full of references to sleep, to sleep disorders, dreams… How do you interpret that fact?
I just take pleasure in reading it, when it is well written.
Freud said that “dream is the faithful guardian of our mental health, our joy of life, since life is nothing but a continuous search of pleasure, contradicted by reality”…
I think that good sleep ensures good mood when waking up. I usually wake up in a very good mood.
Do you recall any amusing story involving sleep or lack of it?
I enjoyed myself a lot when I was sleeping in Teresa Paiva’s lab, attached to a machine and full of wires. That was some experience…
Can you tell us about a particularly fanciful dream you have had?
I don’t know… I never dreamed to be queen or Cinderella, or even to be someone very different than I am.