Dr. Luchini was interviewed by Eirini Giannaraki.
Dr. Alessandra Luchini was born and grew up in Italy. She is the Biosciences PhD program director at the School of Systems Biology and an Associate Professor at the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) at George Mason University. She completed her Master’s in Chemical Engineering and her PhD in Bioengineering at the University of Padua in Italy. Upon the completion of her PhD, Alessandra won a research fellowship, sponsored by the Italian government, to do cancer research and moved to the United States in 2005.
Remembering her life before migrating, Alessandra says: “I grew up in a city close to the border between Italy and Slovenia. It was very quiet and conservative, very beautiful. All of my family still lives there. I am the only one who came to this side of the Atlantic Ocean and embraced an immigration adventure.”
Conducting research was the main reason for Alessandra to move to the United States. She mentions: “The fellowship was part of a nationwide agreement between the United States and Italy. Its overarching goal was to improve cancer research. Originally, I was supposed to go to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). However, the head of the program, Dr. Lance Liotta, left the NIH and so the program followed him to George Mason University. For five years, there was a very intense Italian presence on the Manassas campus. The research is still ongoing, but with a smaller number of Italian researchers. This research project was to develop a cancer test, a blood test that would predict who is going to get cancer. The Italian government wanted to implement a very widespread and non-invasive screening program beyond the standard of care screening approaches such as mammography, colonoscopy etc. Our research aimed to develop a blood test that could tell beforehand if somebody was going to have cancer. This would allow medical practitioners to act preventively, even before cancer is fully developed. We wanted to see what happens in the very beginning, when molecular and cellular modifications start to happen in the body that can eventually lead to cancer. So, with very simple blood tests, we would know what to do to prevent the cancer from establishing primary lesions and spreading. The project lasted for six years; during this intense research effort, we developed new technology, we published papers and received a number of awards from the NIH.”
Dr. Luchini continues: “Initially, I thought that I was going to come here and stay for twelve months. Italy funded the project, provided blood samples of Italian people, and scientists to conduct the research, and the United States provided scientific training and technical support. In total, fifty researchers came to the United States through this program. It was a fairly large program, a scientific collaboration, a wonderful exchange moment.” This move to the United States coincided with a shift in Alessandra’s research expertise. She states: “Before coming to the U.S., my background was in technical areas such as chemical engineering, bioengineering and data analysis. My departure from Italy to the U.S. enabled me to transition from doing mainly data analysis to perform molecular and cellular biology lab work to produce the data. I have learned how to create and validate new biotechnologies. It was a very interesting shift.”
Dr. Luchini and other Mason scientists used the technology she developed for cancer to fight other diseases, including inflammatory, degenerative and infectious diseases: “We extended our interests from cancer to infectious diseases. Similarly, to cancer, an early diagnosis of infectious disease permits prompt treatment with better chances of success; a sensitive direct test supports therapy and reactivation monitoring. We worked on tuberculosis, tick-borne illnesses, and many other diseases. We try to understand what biological mechanisms lead to the progression of disease and development of symptoms, to identify the symptoms early and to provide a better cure.”
With regard to COVID-19, Alessandra mentions: “George Mason University has set up a state-of-the-art CAP CLIA certified laboratory directed by Dr. Lance Liotta to perform PCR and serology tests to help the University community. The laboratory, of which I am a member, has been active as a clinical lab for a long time, and we have reported patient results for Lyme disease and human growth hormones under IRB approved clinical studies. But when the COVID crisis hit, the lab has expanded significantly. Currently, we offer two tests for Covid-19; polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing to see if you have the virus, and serology testing to see if you have been exposed to the virus. In the beginning of the pandemic, we validated reagents to improve testing capabilities, both in the laboratory and at the point of care. We have optimized the use of saliva to test for the virus and to perform serology.”
In 2008 a company was funded, Ceres Nanosciences, to commercialize the technology developed by Dr. Luchini at George Mason University. She comments: “Ceres has joined the fight against COVID-19. Ceres received a large grant from the federal government to scale up operations, and partnered with diagnostic companies to provide reagents that speed up the completion of COVID-19 PCR testing. Ceres recently announced that they are going to conduct wastewater testing across the United States so that spikes in COVID-19 and other infectious disease transmission in the community can be predicted in a timely manner. It has been demonstrated that wastewater testing can pinpoint and identify waves of infection earlier than testing people.”
Regarding her current research on COVID-19, Alessandra highlights: “In the beginning of the pandemic when we didn't have vaccines, it was very important to know who tested positive for the virus. Now that the vaccine has been implemented and distributed to a large number of individuals, it becomes important to study the immune response. We can use this information to guide many decisions as to whether we open schools, reopen businesses etc. Using saliva to detect antibodies can be easier to implement, especially in countries that are less fortunate and organized in terms of healthcare infrastructure.”
She continues: “Right now, the data that we gathered on immunocompetent individuals confirm that the vaccine works very well and that among the totality of people we have tested who have had the vaccine, two weeks after the second dose, have a high titer of COVID antibodies that predicts a strong immune response. We still need to know what happens to other groups of people. Currently, we are planning to perform antibody testing in populations where the effectiveness of the vaccine is uncertain, such as immunocompromised patients. We know that cancer treatment in many ways diminishes the immune response. Certain cancers of the blood cells, such as leukemias, lymphomas, or other cancers directly target the cells that are supposed to produce antibodies. We aim to examine the effectiveness of the vaccine in those people.”
Furthermore, serology and proteomics assays can examine the effectiveness of current vaccines to new variants. Dr. Luchini mentions: “We can use a machine called mass spectrometer to identify the exact regions in the COVID-19 proteins to which antibodies present in the blood of patients bind. A drop of blood product obtained by a COVID-19 patient or a vaccinated individual is mixed with COVID-19 proteins in the laboratory and then analyzed using mass spectrometry. What we obtain, is the amino acid sequence of the COVID-19 protein regions that interact with the complex mixture of antibodies present in the blood. This can be important to design novel drugs and to assess if current vaccines are effective against new virus variants. For the time being, the vaccine is very effective against the variants known to circulate in our area.”
Alessandra tries to find many reasons to visit her native country, Italy. Apart from her family living there, Dr. Luchini has created a university partnership between Mason and the University of Padua in Italy. Before the pandemic, she organized a class on translational research where Mason students visit Padua and attend classes together with Italian graduate students and medical students completing their residency. The class offers hands-on research training, frontal lectures from international experts in genetic, degenerative and infectious diseases, as well as sightseeing in various cultural sites in Venice and Padua. Thinking about her connection with Italy, Alessandra also mentions: “I am part of a task force that focuses on technology commercialization at the intersection between economy and science. We strive to connect Italy, the US, and many other countries in a common goal of expanding the frontiers of research, establishing successful partnerships and sharing lessons learned on the field.”
Dr. Luchini has also been involved in grants that the Italian government funds to study a number of diseases such as glioblastoma, a cancer of the brain, and tuberculosis, among others. At the same time, she has acted as an American partner for the Italian institutions. She says: “I have been involved in American-funded research that has Italy as a collaborative partner, but we also collaborate with other countries such as India, Nepal, South Africa.” Thinking about the impact of the pandemic on international collaborations, Alessandra mentions: “I am excited to see a flourishing of international collaborations and travel when the COVID restrictions are lifted. Regardless of Covid, I see a reframing of the concept of globalization as it appears that the promise and excitement of globalization have not been fulfilled in their totality. The pandemic has accentuated trends that were already there. We reacted in some way because the times and technology were ready.”
Reflecting on previous waves of Italian migrants, Alessandra says: “It always fascinated me how people decided where to migrate. It is interesting to reflect about immigrant contributions and the demographics of different waves of immigration and how they change over time. Between the two World Wars and after the World War II, the contributions of Italians from South Italy who arrived in the United States are often stereotyped as pizza, spaghetti and the mafia (laughing). In the same period, Italians from the rest of Italy immigrated to Canada, Argentina, and Australia. For example, the vast majority of the population of the little town where my mom comes from, went to Argentina in the 40s and 50s. During the 80s and 90s, the United States was an ambitious place to work for the highly-skilled immigrants, but also for the richer migrants. When I was in high school and before the Euro was established, Italians used the Lira. One dollar was equivalent to 2,000 liras. Financially, there was no chance that I could come to the United States. Nowadays, the United States is still a sought-after destination for highly educated migrants because of the job infrastructure, the work ethics, and the big economy that immigrants to pursue and fulfil their interests. At the same time, newer trends of immigration regard China, the Far East or the Middle East. These areas offer great job opportunities and flourishing economies. In terms of migration flows from Italy, the majority of people tend to stay within Europe, in countries such as Switzerland or Germany. Brexit has hit hard the hope of many Italians to establish a career in the UK. I think Italian migrants like Europe better because it is less of a cultural shock. On the other hand, people who are willing to make a strong cultural transition leave Europe to join large economies. Job seekers can find international and competitive environments either way”.