Fernández Robledo Seeks Sea-Based Biotech Breakthroughs


Senior Research Scientist José A. Fernández Robledo, who studies the interactions between parasites and hosts in diseases that affect bivalves like clams, has no problem calling his work “basic science.” But for him, “basic” doesn’t mean science just for the sake of discovery or collection.

“A quote I like is that scientists are good at finding problems, but engineers solve problems,” he said. “I try to look at science like an engineer. It’s basic science, but it’s always about providing something beyond just knowledge, solving a problem, or developing a new technology.”

Like many ocean scientists, Fernández Robledo became interested in the sea for a simple reason — a love of seafood.

“I grew up in a place in Spain where we produce and eat a lot of mussels, so the health of mussels was something we were always talking about and concerned about,” he said.

After receiving his undergraduate degree in molecular biology, he got a master’s in fish pathology and aquaculture. This was followed by a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology where he studied the diseases that affect blue mussels.

During graduate school, Fernández Robledo used a method called histopathology where scientists identify pathogens using slides under a microscope. Although it’s a good approach for documenting the effects of parasites on tissue, it’s too static for studying host-parasite interactions, and it can be difficult to purify enough parasites to study them this way. Fortunately, as he was finishing his degree, a team of scientists in the U.S. figured out how to grow some of these pathogens in the lab, producing a steady stream of material for experiments. Seeing the possibilities that breakthrough would enable, Fernández Robledo decided to move stateside.

Fernández Robledo with students from Southern Maine Community College

He spent the next several years at the University of Maryland Baltimore at the Center of Marine Biotechnology, first as a postdoctoral scientist and then as a research associate and assistant professor. In 2012, he moved to Bigelow Laboratory, bringing his fresh perspective on biotechnology.

Since then, he’s largely focused on developing advanced tools to study diseases that affect the shellfish that help drive Maine’s economy.

“If you want to grow shellfish, you need to have a baseline of information about the parasites that could affect them,” Fernández Robledo said. “But it’s a catch 22. Because they don’t often cause mass mortality events, these diseases aren’t seen as a burning problem, so we’re not collecting that kind of baseline information.”

Fernández Robledo is filling those gaps through the application of cutting-edge genetic engineering and molecular biology techniques. He’s examined the genome of oysters to find strains that may be more resistant to parasites. He’s part of a multi-institutional project looking at a contagious cancer that’s been detected in clams on both coasts. And he’s working to create what’s called an immortal cell line, a culture of cells that divide indefinitely, to address the challenge of having enough material to run experiments.

As the science evolves, though, Fernández Robledo’s work has expanded beyond examining the health of shellfish to using them as a tool to understand human health — and to find creative solutions in fields from cancer research to drug development.

For example, clams can fight off the contagious cancer without the use of a traditional immune system, which could provide insight into new, innovative ways to treat human diseases.

Another potential application is a parasite found in oysters, harmless to humans, that could be engineered to deliver vaccines for diseases like malaria without having to use the actual dead or inactivated pathogens that cause those diseases as they do for most vaccines.

Fernández Robledo helping get young students excited about science

“I had this idea of using this oyster parasite and engineering it to express genes from other parasites so it activates the immune system to produce the antibodies and act like a vaccine,” Fernández Robledo said.

In early tests, his team showed that the engineered oyster parasite not only invokes a response in the mouse immune system similar to that of a vaccine, but it could also be delivered orally rather than through an injection, which would revolutionize vaccine delivery.

In this research, and all of his exciting breakthroughs, Fernández Robledo centers students in his process. He regularly mentors students through the Bigelow Laboratory summer internship and Sea Change Semester program. He also teaches graduate courses at the Institute of Marine Environmental Technology back in Baltimore and with partner institutions in Maine, including the Roux Institute as part of their biotechnology graduate program.

His goal for these young researchers is that they get a real feel for what it’s like to be a scientist. With the sort of complex, bold research he does, that means learning to be okay when things don’t work. It also means being exposed to diverse career paths, whether that’s in industry, academia, or at a nonprofit like Bigelow Laboratory.

“Finding those students who are truly engaged, or decide to pursue a career in this work, really helps balance the rejections and failures that come with this kind of risky work,” he joked. “I was a student for a long time, so I know the value of having teachers who guide you, and I know these research experiences can make a big difference.”

Photo 1: Senior Research Scientist José A. Fernández Robledo at work in the lab.

Photo 2: Fernández Robledo works with students from Southern Maine Community College during a short course intensive doing clam cancer research at MDI Biological Laboratory (courtesy of MDI Biological Laboratory).

Photo 3: Fernández Robledo participates in Maine Bioscience Day in 2023 helping get young students excited about science (courtesy of Bioscience Association of Maine).