Researcher scoops early career award to tackle female-specific susceptibility to diseases

Dr Yolanda Markaki

A University of Leicester academic is among a group of ‘exceptional’ biomedical and health researchers awarded a total of £6.6 million. 

Dr Yolanda Markaki, a lecturer in Molecular and Cell Biology, is set to receive nearly £125,000 through the Springboard scheme set up by the Academy of Medical Sciences. 

The scheme supports early career researchers in their work through funding as well as mentoring opportunities and career development programmes over a two-year period. It is awarded to researchers across biomedical science, from molecular biology to public health. Projects funded this year will advance understanding across a diverse range of health areas including cancer, antimicrobial resistance, musculoskeletal conditions and mental health. 

Dr Markaki, who is part of the University’s Institute for Structural and Chemical Biology, is researching the principles that govern genome architecture, exploring how changes in nuclear compartmentalisation and the distribution of epigenetic factors alter gene expression and cellular fate. 

In particular she is interested in the process of X chromosome inactivation. X-inactivation is a fundamental process of life that keeps female embryos alive, which if it becomes uncontrolled, can lead to diseases including cancer. 

She said: “The Springboard award will help us uncover the molecular organisation of nanomachines (which regulate genes), that are central to X-inactivation and female embryonic development and to develop strategies to induce and maintain female human naïve stem cells. Ultimately, it could help us to understand female-specific susceptibilities to diseases, particularly immune-related diseases and to develop therapeutic interventions.

“I’m incredibly grateful to receive this award allowing me to continue my research on X-inactivation with the hope of increasing our knowledge and understanding of the process and the potential to generate female stem cells that will be adequate for regenerative medicine applications.”

The Academy of Medical Sciences Springboard champion for the University of Leicester, Prof Charalambos Kyriacou FMedSci, who mediates the submission of proposals to the Academy said: “Yolanda is an outstanding young scientist and this two-year award will consolidate her fantastic early research achievements – watch this space, she is a star.”

Professor James Naismith FMedSci, Vice-President (Non-Clinical) at the Academy of Medical Sciences, said: "The Academy, together with our partners, is committed to cultivating the next generation of biomedical research leaders and ensuring they have the resources and support necessary to realise their immense potential. By providing substantial financial backing and access to invaluable career development opportunities at this critical stage, we can enable talented researchers to deliver breakthroughs and innovations to improve human health."

The Springboard programme is supported by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), Wellcome, British Heart Foundation and Diabetes UK.

Critical to looking deeply into these nanosized macromolecular complexes will be the acquisition of a powerful nearly £1m-worth super-resolution microscope which was recently awarded to the University by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in a bid Dr Markaki led as Principal Investigator. 

The microscope is currently being installed in the Advanced Imaging Facility in the University’s College of Life Sciences and will offer unprecedented space and time resolution of the processes of life to many researchers at Leicester and in the Midlands consortia.