Sara Ravasio, researcher and Ph.d candidate at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB), is member of the Immune Regulation research group, under the supervision of Antonio Lanzavecchia, IRB Director. This interview tells the story of a budding scientist, her motivations and her views on biomedical science in society.
What brought you to Bellinzona and why did you choose the IRB?
After graduating at the University of Pavia in Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Technology, I had the opportunity to work in the pharmaceutical industry, but deep down I felt the urge to continue with scientific research in the field. I was aware of the quality and excellence of the universities and research institutes in Switzerland, and after browsing the Web, I eventually landed on the IRB. I was thrilled by the research conducted in Bellinzona, so I decided to contact the Institute by e-mail, and after a successful interview I was offered a position as doctoral student. I accepted the offer, even though in the meantime I had a competing offer from ETH Zurich and from a few other institutes.
Therefore, your decision was not only a question of language…
Not at all. Actually, at the beginning I was hesitant towards the IRB because I would have liked to change environment completely. However, I realized that research is fuelled by passion, because it is an activity that requires considerable time and effort. I therefore chose the IRB, which since January 2015 has consistently provided me with motivation and new perspectives.
What is your activity at IRB?
I am in the Research Group of Professor Antonio Lanzavecchia, which focuses on identifying and characterising monoclonal antibodies. In particular, I am interested in studying a rare and, unfortunately, lethal condition called Light-Chain Amyloidosis. The light-chain of antibodies in certain still not fully understood conditions are capable of forming amyloid aggregates that are deposited in the target organs, for instance the heart, thus causing the hardening of the cardiac muscle and a direct intoxication of the organ, which could lead to the patient’s death within just a few months from the diagnosis.
Is this a common disease?
No, it is considered one of the so-called rare diseases, which however are very difficult to diagnose and therefore it is presumed that many people are affected by them without knowing so. Our goal is to identify which factors can lead the light-chains to aggregate and to exert a toxic function.
How do you feel about the responsibility your work entails in terms of its practical applications, albeit indirectly, in society?
I chose to pursue studies in pharmaceutical chemistry and then continue with a PhD at IRB for the precise reason I wanted to see the practical applications of my endeavours in society.
It sounds like you received a “call”…
Quite right. One must not think that fundamental research is unnecessary or for its own sake, as it often occurred in past eras in which scientists were perceived as detached from society. Today the situation is very different and all is more concrete, tangible: we need to understand the basic mechanisms to enable the general progress of science.
Would you agree in saying that a scientist has more freedom working in an institute rather than operating in a research laboratory or in the industry?
Yes, absolutely. In my case, for instance, I have always had the possibility to interact directly and openly with Prof. Lanzavecchia. The idea of working on light-chain amyloidosis spawned in fact from this sort of dialogue. At the IRB, researchers are free to organise their time and to conduct research to suit their needs. Nevertheless, we spend significant amounts of time in the lab. In fact, the occurrence of time-consuming lab tests require us to remain on site. Alongside my work in the lab, I spend considerable portions of my workdays studying and analysing data. Furthermore, as I am in the IRB PhD programme, I am expected to participate in conferences and research seminars, activities that are an important part of my overall training as a scientist.
Do you use computer simulations as well for your experiments?
I currently collaborate with the Research Group of Dr Andrea Cavalli, who at the IRB works on the development of theoretical and computational methods for the determination of the structure of proteins from sparse experimental data. Dr Cavalli shares an interest in studying amyloidosis, and I find it interesting that we can collaborate and compare results from the laboratory and from computational approaches, such as the so-called molecular dynamic simulation and the large-scale analysis of sequences.
Do you see a future in computational methods, and will lab research thrive?
I believe we should continue in both directions, in parallel. Computer simulations are very interesting for their ability to provide researches with research ideas, which then need to be tested in the lab. The bioinformatic approach is nevertheless a key element in our field because it allows us to analyse vast amounts of data that modern technology provides us with and that cannot be analysed within ‘reasonable’ timespans.
It normally takes years to produce a drug, from scientific discovery to therapy, is this true?
Yes, indeed, but fundamental research has made great strides in streamlining discovery times for potential new drugs, which however must meet specific requirements in terms of safety and non-toxicity. For the safety of patients, it is therefore necessary to follow a procedure set by international organizations such as Swissmedic in Switzerland or EMA in Europe, although in certain specific cases it would be preferred to further reduce the lead times.