BBDC Member Profile

Sara Nunes Vasconcelos, PhD

January 5, 2023
By Krista Lamb

photo of Sara Nunes Vasconcelos

Growing up in Brazil, Dr. Sara Nunes Vasconcelos loved nature and learning how things in the natural world worked. For a young woman growing up in a small town in Brazil, however, the idea of becoming a scientist seemed completely out of the question. Then, while attending University in Rio de Janeiro she learned about graduate school and that she would even be paid a salary during her graduate studies. Vasconcelos leapt at the opportunity to take advantage of the offer to pursue a career in science.

As part of her PhD studies, Vasconcelos moved to the U.S. for a period. She and her family fell in love with the country, which felt in stark contrast to the chaos and dangers of living in Rio. She was able to do some of her postdoctoral studies at the University of Louisville and secured a scientist development grant from the American Heart Association to transition to independence, but visa struggles meant her husband would not be able work in the country, potentially for years. Instead, in 2011 they decided to pursue immigration to Canada, a choice that brought this exceptional scientist to Toronto.

Vasconcelos is now an Associate Professor at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto and a Senior Scientist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute. In 2022, she was named the John Kitson McIvor Endowed Chair in Diabetes Research. Her lab focuses primarily on diabetes and cardiovascular disease, looking for ways that regenerative medicine techniques could improve outcomes for these conditions. In diabetes, she explains, they have one overarching goal. “Basically, we are looking at transplantation of insulin-secreting cells, and how we can enable vascularization to allow these cells to survive and secrete insulin.”

Her work in both diabetes and cardiovascular health has been impressive. This spring the Stem Cell Network awarded her lab $3M in grant funding to continue her work in heart disease, a major complication of diabetes. “With this grant, we’re going to advance our vascularization strategies to treat myocardial infraction in a large animal model,” she explains. “We’re putting this vascularization strategy to the test to see if it will work in a heart that is more similar in size and anatomy to that of a human.” While the project is in early days, Vasconcelos is optimistic based on the results they have seen in smaller animal models.

The lab is also involved in several team grants that are moving forward her ideas on how to vascularize beta cells. Working alongside some of Canada’s top researchers in the regenerative medicine field, including Drs. Cristina Nostro, Greg Korbutt and Andrew Pepper, Vasconcelos and her team are able to have an even greater impact. This type of collaborative effort across institutes is a newer development in research, and one she sees as an excellent step forward for the field.

“More and more, we’re realizing there isn’t one thing that’s going to save everyone. It’s not one cell type, or one growth factor or one injection that’s going to make everything work. If you’re building an organ, it has multiple cell types for a reason. We need to join forces, and bring our different expertise and work together,” says Vasconcelos. “It’s amazing when you collaborate, and I’ve been extremely lucky with my collaborators. They have always been generous and extremely smart. So, it’s a pleasure to work together.”

Vasconcelos has also relished her role as a mentor, in particular to a new generation of women in science. Her belief is that she is not trying to mold her trainees into what she would like them to be, but to identify what they want to do and help them to achieve those goals. “It’s about figuring out what’s going to work for them. And that, in turn, gets them motivated to do the work,” she says. “It makes it much easier when the person says, ‘this is my plan,’ and then I will try to do everything that I can to present them with opportunities and the network to support their goals.”

Going forward, Vasconcelos’ lab will be a busy one, with her numerous projects and collaborations. She relishes the chance to do the work she loves in her adopted home and the idea that someday in the future her vascularization work will be ready for in-human trials. “We’re starting to have conversations about putting some of this stuff into the clinic. That’s exciting, even if it’s still a long way off.”