U of A neuroscientist recognized with prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship

Maria Ioannou’s research focuses on new approaches to lipid biology using powerful medical imaging techniques that could shed new light on a wide variety of diseases.


U of A neuroscientist Maria Ioannou is among the newest recipients of the Sloan Research Fellowship, given annually to exceptional early career researchers in North America with the potential to make significant contributions to their field. (Photo: Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry; taken pre-COVID-19)

A neuroscientist at the University of Alberta has received a Sloan Research Fellowship in recognition of her innovative work in lipid biology using medical imaging techniques that could shed new light on a wide variety of diseases.

Maria Ioannou, assistant professor in the Department of Physiology and adjunct in the Department of Cell Biology in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, is among 126 North American early career researchers who received the two-year, $75,000 awards from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

“It's such a prestigious award,” said Ioannou, who is also a member of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute, the Women and Children's Health Research Institute and the Group on Molecular and Cell Biology of Lipids. “Such exceptional people get it. If you look back on who's received it in the past, they've all had these outstanding careers. It means that this committee sees something in me, that I have the potential to be great.”

Having completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus, Ioannou established her lab at the U of A in May of 2019.

Her research focuses on the cellular function of lipids—a group of biological molecules such as fats, oils and waxes—and the role they play in the central nervous system. Lipids play a key role in important functions of the body, and when not functioning properly can lead to a variety of disorders and neurodegenerative diseases.

“We've known for a long time that lipids traffic from astrocytes (star-shaped cells in the central nervous system) to neurons, but when neurons get really stressed out, they seem to generate a lot of excess lipids and that can be very toxic,” Ioannou noted. “Because they don't have the capacity to deal with that themselves, they are unloaded back to astrocytes. We're looking at how this process influences cell health and pathology of both neurons and astrocytes.”

U of A neuroscientist and newly minted Sloan Research Fellow Maria Ioannou talks about her innovative work looking at lipids in the brain and how they may be related to several neurodegenerative diseases. (Video: Geoff McMaster)

Looking at lipids from new angles

Ioannou said her team develops new methods for gathering data using a highly technical microscopy approach.

“I'm a cell biologist and a microscopist, so I take a heavy imaging-based approach, which means that we come at it from a different angle than most other groups, combining lots of different forms of quantitative microscopy.”

Ioannou said in the long term, there are many potential applications for a greater understanding of lipid biology, including more precise diagnostic tools for neurological disorders, cancers and diseases in other areas of the body.

“For the next couple of years, we're going to hone in on the mechanisms of how this transfer process happens, and see if there are any drugs that could be used or pathways that could be targeted to modulate it. If, for instance, we could prevent some cell death, maybe we could try to apply that to animal models of disease.”

This work could improve understanding of a variety of neurodegenerative disorders, but there is a lot that is unknown—and the first step is to develop a greater understanding of the science, Ioannou said.

“I am, at my core, a basic science researcher, so my projects are driven entirely by cell biology and what we don’t know. If I only had my focus on stroke, for instance, I wouldn't see that there are implications for Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease. I think we really need to keep pushing the importance of basic science.”

The Sloan Fellowship is considered an indicator of future success. Previous fellows have gone on to receive 51 Nobel Prizes, 17 Fields Medals in mathematics and 69 National Medals of Science, and 20 have won the John Bates Clark Medal in economics.