One woman’s groundbreaking research promises to revolutionize the early detection of disease.
By Helen Mondloch • Photography By Erick Gibson
When the phone rings at her office on the Manassas campus of George Mason University, Dr. Alessandra Luchini pauses for a moment, apologizing in a mellifluous Italian accent that she’s not sure how to silence the ringer.
“Si, si, si,” says Luchini to her caller. She rattles off a succession of sentences in her native tongue, punctuated by a genial laugh. Before closing with a “ciao,” she offers what sounds like a good-faith reassurance.
The caller, a fellow Italian scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, she explains, was just checking on the status of the sample he sent her for analysis. He is one of many researchers from various parts of the world with whom Luchini collaborates on cutting-edge techniques destined to save lives from the ravages of disease.
With her bright eyes and ponytail coif, the 36 year-old inventor of breakthrough medical technologies displays a casual charm not commonly associated with stellar ingenuity. She talks about nanoparticles and molecular structures with all the ease and simplicity of a schoolgirl catching you up on her latest pastimes.
And yet Luchini ranks officially among the brightest in her field. In 2011, Popular Science Magazine named her one of the “Brilliant 10,” an annual list of America’s most impressive scientists under age 40. Quoted in GMU’s newsletter, Mark Jannot, the magazine’s editor-in-chief at the time, explained, “Our annual ‘Brilliant 10’ feature is a testament to the importance of scientific research and a salute to the dazzling young minds driving it.” He also noted that the publication receives hundreds of nominations for the award every year and must then “whittle the candidates down to the ones whose work really blows the tops of our heads off.”
Senior Editor Martha Harbison remarked that Luchini’s work promises to revolutionize early disease detection with a wide range of applications, including the early detection of several major cancers. Harbison praised Luchini in last April’s edition of GMU’s student newspaper, saying, “She’s able to take a lot of disparate ideas and roll them into one elegant package.”
Luchini arrived on the scene at GMU’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) in 2005 as a fellow from the Istituto Superiore di Sanita, the Italian equivalent of America’s National Institute of Health (NIH). With a PhD in bioengineering, Luchini’s mission was to study the latest innovations in the area of cancer biomarkers—substances found in a patient’s body fluids that indicate the presence of the disease. The project gradually expanded to include biomarkers linked to Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and infectious disease, including Lyme disease. “The project just became bigger and bigger,” she recalls.
Within a couple years, Luchini, already a winner of several prestigious science awards, accepted a position as Research Assistant Professor at Mason’s CAPMM. She also met her husband-to-be, then a GMU student. They soon married, moved to Burke and had a daughter, Sofia, now 3.
Luchini’s breakthrough research achievement came in 2008, when she headed up a team that developed the nanoparticle trap, also known as the “nano-trap.’’ The patented technology looks simple enough—a beaker of colored solution containing the tiniest of microscopic particles which, when mixed with a patient’s blood or other body fluids, act like a fish net, capturing biomarkers so that doctors can diagnose disease in its nascent stages. Funded through grants by NIH and other major health organizations, Luchini’s research is currently expanding its reach to include a wide range of disease detection and even the detection of illegal substances that were previously elusive to lab tests. The nanotrap is being disseminated for commercial use by Ceres Nanosciences—the spin-off company that Luchini and her colleagues founded in 2006—and promises to become a medical game-changer.
Perhaps contrary to expectation, Luchini describes her path to the laboratory as latent and “nonlinear.” And while one might expect her to be quirky or aloof—given that she spends long hours manipulating stubborn particles that are one-billionth the size of reality—neither description applies. This member of the Brilliant 10 is instead a people-person composed of equal parts genius, likability and steadfast determination.
Propensities and epiphanies
Luchini’s early childhood memories suggest a propensity for wonder and discovery. In an on-camera interview with WJLA Channel 7, she recalled that she never played with dolls. Instead, she dissected insects and collected stones and leaves.
She grew up in the town of Novara in northern Italy, enjoying what she describes as a traditional Italian upbringing that revolved around family and the Catholic faith. Her father was an engineer and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who devoted herself to Ale (pronounced “Allie”), as she is still called, and to her younger sister Annalisa. She recalls homemade foods, lively company and summers at the family’s beach house near Venice. An uncle who had joined the priesthood was her family’s greatest source of pride.
Luchini attributes her work ethic to the culture of Friuli, a region tucked into the northeastern corner of the country, where her parents grew up and where she later attended high school. Friuli is noted among Italians, she says, for the uniquely hearty character of its people, whom she describes as “strong but a little bit rough.”
“My grandfather used to say that a good day was a good day if you were tired of working a long time,” she reflects. The women of Friuli have always been especially well-known for their devotion to hard work. They still serve as Luchini’s silent mentors in a career field that is often romanticized but in reality requires painstaking perseverance. Each time researchers adapt the nanoparticle trap for the detection of a different disease, for instance, hundreds of variables must be manipulated independently—as in, one at time. The trial and error process is so tedious (yet ultimately so rewarding) that Luchini has called it the laboratory equivalent of mining for diamonds. Moreover, in any given study, if the discovery phase takes too long to yield results, funding might be cut off (a much more common predicament in Italy than in the science-friendly United States, she says). Not least of the barriers Luchini has faced is being a woman in a field still dominated by men—but one in which she believes persevering women are making significant strides.
Luchini’s high school, offering a five-year program as is customary in Italy, specialized in literature and the humanities. The teenage Ale studied the classics, learned Latin and Greek, and developed a fondness for art. The latter is still evidenced in her office, where—besides books and papers piled in such seeming disarray that one wonders how even the most ingenious thinker can find anything (a hint that Luchini is perhaps a bit of a mad scientist after all)—a bulletin board displays placid postcards from art museums around the world.
Luchini had little interest in science until an epiphany experience during her fourth year of high school—the day when a nanoscientist came to deliver a talk, probing the implications of the nascent field for medicine and a variety of other disciplines.
“The presentation was a big eye-opener,” Luchini reflects. “I realized that I could choose to follow a path that would allow me to increase knowledge and discovery and push past frontiers.” That singular recognition still fuels her belief in the importance of exposing young people to the wonders of science—something she does by serving as a mentor in GMU’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program. The program provides high school and college students the chance to don a lab coat and experience the life of a researcher.
At the University of Padova, a place steeped in the grandeur of Renaissance antiquity, Luchini found inspiration in another scientist: Galileo Galilei, who taught at the school starting in 1592 and who conducted his most notable experiments there. She relates an anecdote about the iconoclast’s courage and creativity when it came to conducting experiments on human anatomy. The Catholic Church—with whom Galileo famously clashed—strictly forbade cutting into the human body. While performing secret autopsies at what is today called the Anatomical Theater, a popular tourist site on the campus, Galileo eluded roving church police by placing a dead dog on the other end of the surgical table. Whenever student guards alerted him to the presence of police, he would swiftly shroud the human and rotate the table to reveal the dog.
After earning a Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, Luchini stayed at Padova to earn her Master’s and PhD in bioengineering. She wrote her thesis on something called “Transcriptional analysis of osteoblast-biomaterial interaction” in 2005, the same year she shipped out to GMU for her fellowship.
Since joining Mason’s faculty, Luchini has immersed herself in medical research and all the tasks it has encompassed—like writing grant proposals and co-authoring about a dozen scholarly papers. Then there’s the steady stream of phone calls she gets from fellow scientists seeking her advice as they try to trap particles of their own. Some are stationed back in Italy, others closer to home, including the red brick building visible from her office window. That’s the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases, the very title of which serves as a reminder that this remote stretch of land west of the D.C. beltway is home to some serious business.
Luchini seems to derive no less pleasure or attach any less importance to the various courses she teaches, usually one per semester. Currently, she spends Tuesday afternoons on GMU’s Fairfax campus, probing issues like cloning and climate change in a course called Biology and Society.
When the day is done, Luchini heads home to Burke and plays with 3-year-old Sofia. Like any suburban mom, she often packs up her child and chauffeurs her to activities like ballet and gymnastics. “The thing that makes me the most proud is motherhood,” she points out.
Casting her net
On this late summer afternoon at Bull Run Hall, the laboratory machines are humming at full speed. Luchini is providing a lively tour of her stomping grounds, where the state-of -the-art spectrometer is especially boisterous. “Now you know why I’m sort of deaf,” quips the scientist.
Against the cacophonous white-noise, row after row of countertops are laden with the minutia of scientific quest—microscopes and beakers and dog-eared manuals. A weary white board displays formulas subject to copious revision. The mice are asleep in the lab next door.
From a busy shelf, Luchini picks up a colorful, expandable ball—the kind of oddity you might find in an upscale toy store. This is a plastic model of the nanoparticle, blown up about a billion times. Take about a billion of these spherical substances, toss them into a beaker, and you have a nanotrap. Luchini drops a crumpled paper into the ball’s center and then collapses it, demonstrating the nanoparticle’s way of trapping biomarkers. A spinning process, or centrifuge, then separates the substances, unfettering the holy grail of diagnostic science.
Breathtaking in its simplicity and relatively low in cost, the nanotrap evokes the wonders of the telescope invented by Galileo in 1610—a connection suggested by Popular Magazine writer Madhumita Venkataramanan in her 2011 article about Luchini’s induction into the “Brilliant 10.” The article reported that when Luchini first visited the Museo Galileo in Florence as a child, she marveled over the telescope’s simplicity. Just as the telescope used a few pieces of curved glass to reveal “whole new worlds,” so, too, does the nanotrap employ a simple technique to reveal crucial medical information previously undetectable.
In a back corner of the lab, a rotisserie machine the size of a shoe box holds tubes bound by surgical tape, spinning round and round. These, says Luchini, are specimens from infants in New York City, where the percentage of children suffering from asthma significantly exceeds the national average. In conjunction with researchers at Columbia University, her team is studying asthma’s biomarkers with the hope that the illness can one day be treated long before a child ever experiences its debilitating symptoms. The nanotrap not only captures but preserves the biomarkers—a crucial function, given that the body’s enzymes act to rapidly degrade these tell-tale substances. According to Dr. Lance Liotta, Luchini’s colleague and co-director of the CAPMM, this application of the nanotrap will pave the way towards another crucial frontier: “Studying the biomarkers will help us address environmental causes so that we cannot only treat but eventually prevent asthma,” says Liotta.
The same principles and lofty aspirations apply to a host of other diseases that nanoparticles are now poised to descend upon. They include Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, schizophrenia, anthrax and a number of deadly viruses. The trap has been highly successful in detecting Chagas, a parasitic infection common in Central and South America. In addition, the net could become a chief player in preventing doping scandals in the world of professional sports, as the trap can measure growth hormones more readily than current lab tests.
An application that will have a significant impact on the lives of Virginians is the test for Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness that has reached epidemic levels across the state. Due for commercial availability in the spring of 2014, the Lyme trap is able to do what previous lab tests could no—capture disease molecules with such precision as to yield a definitive diagnosis in the early stages of infection. For the Lyme disease patient, that means treatments to prevent joint pain and other potential outcomes, including long-term afflictions born of damage to the heart.
The nanoparticle test for Lyme disease is a powerful testament to the summer program that welcomes budding scientists into the research scene here at Bull Run Hall. In 2010, Temple Douglas, then a high school student who now attends Princeton University, proposed the first ideas for the test while enrolled as a GMU summer intern. The nano-test patent bears her name along with that of Luchini, her proud mentor, and other members of the CAPMM team.
No doubt, the application most likely to shape these pioneers’ legacy for its ability to alleviate human suffering will be one that takes aim at cancer. Currently, Luchini predicts that tests designed for the early detection of the most common cancers—including melanoma and cancers of the breast, colon, skin, and lungs—are about five years away from widespread commercial availability. Thanks to hard-working collaborators and ample funding, the discovery phase is moving at a brisk pace, she reports. Nanotrap tests for less common cancers—including that of the kidney and blood—will take longer to develop because there are fewer subjects for clinical studies. But even the biomarkers for these cancers, she believes, will one day fall into the clutches of the nanotrap. Initially, the tests will diagnose patients with early phase disease symptoms. Eventually, CAPMM researchers hope the test will also unearth biomarkers in people merely predisposed to cancer, allowing doctors to avert the onset of the disease and the need for chemotherapy and radiation. In essence, the prevention will become the cure—a highly coveted one, for researchers and the general population alike.
In this lab filled with human specimens and messy accouterments, the men and women in lab coats have years of hard work cut out for them. Reflecting on the prospects of this weapon she has devised to fight the war on cancer and other diseases, Luchini once again displays her schoolgirl charm: “It makes us very excited,” she says.
By Lucie Silvano
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Posted by Jasmine Lee / Tuesday, December 4th, 2012
Santa Claus, reindeer, Christmas tree lightings and festive parades are the norm in the United States…
but let’s not forget about the diversity that exists around the globe. From the traditional foods of The Philippines to the folklore in Italy, there will always be a multitude of ways to celebrate. Here are six traditions you may not have heard before.
It may be unseasonably warm today, but NoVA is typically cold come Christmas-time. Down in the Bahamas, both the joy of the holiday and the bright sunshine warm up the streets, making it a perfect time for an outdoor festival. “Junkanoo,” as it’s called, is celebrated on Dec. 26 with colorful costumes, elaborate decorations and lively dancing.
While we’re taking our families to Reston Town Center for a fun day of ice skating, Venezuelans are skating their way down the street to mass! From Dec. 16-24, streets of the capital city of Caracas are closed to motor traffic for “Misa de Aguinaldo,” or Early Morning Mass. It’s an established part of the Christmas season, and skating there is a much easier way to get everyone there on time.
In Ethiopia, Christmas is celebrated on Jan. 7, as the country follows the traditional Julian calendar. Everyone fasts the day before Christmas (called “Ganna”) and, at night, priests carry intricate umbrellas as they lead people through the cities and villages to church services. On Ganna morning, white clothing is the norm, followed by sports, feasts and the exchange of gifts.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
If third time’s a charm, then beloved Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli is completely charmed. And charming. With trip #3 (in a row) to the U.S. just around the corner, we caught up with the most beautiful voice in the world and talked about visiting D.C., his recent Dancing With the Stars cameo, soon-to-be-established charity foundation and more.
[As told through translation]
Lorin Drinkard: We’re so looking forward to your upcoming visit to Washington, D.C. As your third tour in the United States, do you have surprises up your sleeves for the audience? What are some of the musical selections you’ll be performing?
Andrea Bocelli: “My aim is to transmit throughout the world that eternally beautiful repertoire which is traditional of an Italian tenor, ranging from operatic arias to great ballads and Neapolitan melodies as well as a few other pieces chosen among the ones that people have come to associate with my voice.”
Drinkard: Conductor Eugene Kohn, Ana Maria Martinez and Heather Headley will also be with you tour. Tell me a little about working with Mr. Kohn. What aspects of his conducting do you most appreciate? And performing with Martinez and Headley?
Bocelli: “Eugene is a great musician as well as being a man who lives for music, almost more than me and it is always a wonderful thing to work with people who still have a childish enthusiasm towards the things they do.
Heather and Ana are two friends who have been sharing the scene with me for several years. Let’s say it will be like a special party among friends. What more can I ask for?”
Drinkard: Over the years, you’ve starred and performed in numerous operas. Do you have a favorite character or role? What about it appeals most to you?
Bocelli: “There are plenty of characters that I love in operas and it would be truly impossible to choose one, also because a lot depends on the moment, on my mood … I can say that, when I confronted the character of Cavaradossi I could truly identify with his personality as a man, as a lover, as a citizen, very attentive to the political events of his era.”
Drinkard: And you recently performed on the hit show “Dancing With the Stars” along with Chris Botti. How did this musical collaboration come about?
Bocelli: “David Foster introduced us and we quickly took a liking to one another. Chris is extremely talented and transmits vital energy. Music has the power to unite people and so we immediately felt a strong desire to make music together.”
Drinkard: In just a few days, you’re newest CD/DVD release, “One Night in Central Park” will be available in stores. Tell me a little about that concert in New York. What about it makes it so unique and special? What can fans look forward to on this CD/DVD?
Bocelli: “I experienced a huge emotion, a huge sense of responsibility with regards to recording of the CD and DVD. I thought of the people that were eagerly awaiting me, defying the rain and the cold wind, I thought of my children, my mother and my partner, all of those whose heart was beating fast at the idea of seeing me appear in that spectacular framework. I thought of everything and nothing at the same time, because when the moment arrived, all thoughts took refuge in that protected area of my mind to make space for concentration.”
Drinkard: Congratulations, Signore Bocelli, on making it into the “Guinness Book of World Records” for the highest-selling solo classical album of all time. As one of the most accomplished tenors in the world, who inspires you musically? Any other tenors or classical performers you admire?
Bocelli: “This is one of the few questions that does not generate any doubts whatsoever: I have said and written time and time again that Franco Corelli was my true model, my inspirer, always, when I heard him for the very first time. It was love at first sight and this bond has never broken and has never suffered a recession.
As far as more recent times are concerned, I cannot afford not to mention the Maestro Pavarotti who deserves a special place in the history of music of our century and it was an unforgettable privilege for me to be at his side.”
Drinkard: In addition to classical music, what other types of music interests you?
Bocelli: “I am open to listening to all kinds of music: we can trace marvellous pages from all kinds of music, but my preference is for the opera and when I get out of my armchair to put on a CD, most of the times my choice is for opera.”
Drinkard: Having sold over 65 million records to date, what about your music makes it enjoyable and relevant to fans all over the world, from all different walks of life?
Bocelli: “The nature of music is mysterious and so much so that it generates strong emotions within us. It moves along passages that reach the most intimate areas of our psyche without being tried by prejudices or influences of any kind. This special condition attributes special properties to music that even I, in a certain sense, without even troubling the supernatural, do not hesitate in defining as a mystical experience.”
Drinkard: What do you think are contributing factors to your success in the musical world?
Bocelli: “I don’t believe that key moments exist: instead there is passion, determination, predisposition, the receptivity of the audience. What counts is to be the right man at the right time.”
Drinkard: You are quoted as saying, “I don’t think one decides to become a singer, It is decided for you by the reactions of the people around you.” Who were the people around you that led to the beginning of your journey as a singer?
Bocelli: “It was an intuition of my mother who, when I was a whimsical child, only managed to make me eat by putting on background music that she used as a ‘sedative.’ She made me listen to the tenor Franco Corelli, whose voice I fell in love with as soon as I heard it. From then on music became a constant and vital element in my life. It was a real flash of lightning, so much so that at nine years of age I already knew quite a number of songs.”
Drinkard: You began your career in Italy. Do you have a favorite performance venue there?
Bocelli: “Italy is where the opera was born and, among other things, it is my real passion with traditional theatres in which singing still represents an extraordinary experience. Small theatres in which you can feel the audience breathing almost next to you and with you, where your voice is offered in a simple and natural manner, without the need for amplification – these are the places in which I am always happy to sing.”
Drinkard: You are also quoted as saying there is “no connection” between your blindness and your singing ability. In what ways do you think being blind has impacted your life? As far as your musical career?
Bocelli: “It is not the absence of defects that determines the success of an important singer, but the presence of huge values that are nothing more than heaven-sent gifts.”
Drinkard: Last year you teamed up to sing with Mary J. Blige at the Grammy Awards to raise money for Haiti relief. Are there other charitable organizations that are near and dear to your heart?
Bocelli: “I warmly and actively accepted the nomination as Honorary President of the ARPA Foundation of Professor Mosca some years ago and I have also been supporting the NPH ITALIA Francesco Rava Foundation , operating in Haiti, for some time.
Furthermore, I must say that the birth of the Andrea Bocelli Foundation will soon be announced.”
Drinkard: Signore Bocelli, you’ve said you’ve always “loved speed and adventure” and that you’re “a man of action.” When you’re not performing or recording music, what types of activities do you most enjoy doing?
Bocelli: “One of my greatest passion is horse riding. I have always been fascinated by horses, by their strength, their agility, their beauty, all made available to man. Riding is also a challenge, a courageous act, even more so the younger and more highly strung the animal is … As a child I couldn’t resist the temptation of riding a difficult horse, of conquering his resistance … It was really thrilling. Later on horses helped me to learn to love nature, the peace of the countryside, the voice of the woods and the rivers.
As my career got underway I had to abandon my horse riding activities but the passion remained, to the point that just recently I could not resist buying another horse. Once again I chose another young black stallion, only three years old; now we have to get to know each other, but our friendship has got off to a good start. I feel that I have made a new friend who will be a good companion for many years.”
Bocelli, with conductor Eugene Kohn, will be performing with world-renowned soprano Ana Maria Martinez and Tony Award-winner Heather Headley at the Verizon Center in D.C. on December 2nd at 8 pm. Tickets are $78 – $378 and are available for purchase here.
Posted by The Editorial Desk / Tuesday, May 25th, 2010
After years of laying low, journeyman pizzaiolo Edan MacQuaid (that’s his grinning mug, above) stands ready to reintroduce artisan pie lovers to his particular brand of Neapolitan deliciousness at the closer-to-opening-than-ever Pizzeria Orso.
“I can’t wait to get back in front of the oven,” MacQuaid said, adding that he fully intends to hand make every pizza–all pies will be flash baked (estimated cooking time: 90 seconds at 800 degrees) in the straight-from-Naples brick oven–for the foreseeable future.
It’s that type of attention to detail that helped MacQuaid rise through the ranks at the first Pizzeria Paradiso during the early 1990s and led to his becoming one of the most sought after pie slingers in the area (he helped establish the pizza programs at 2 Amys, the original RedRocks and the now-defunct Bebo Trattoria).
MacQuaid retreated from view in 2007 to began working on the Pizzeria Orso project, devoting the past few years to recipe testing and business plan writing. And he’s convinced the fruits of his intensive research will be readily apparent to veteran pizza hounds.
“We’ve gone to really long lengths to make sure we have the most authentic product this side of Naples,” he asserted.
MacQuaid suggested, however, that he was unlikely to pursue the now fashionable Denominazione di Origine Controllata certification. But he did leave the door open to exploring the newly minted Specialita Traditionale Garantita status.
Pedigreed or not, everyone will get the chance to judge MacQauid’s life’s work when Orso officially comes online in the coming weeks. (A press release pitched an early June opening but MacQuaid suggested he might pull the trigger sooner, noting, “We’re ready to start producing some pizzas.”)
MacQuaid expects to get underway with around 20 specialty pies, including: classic margherita (San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil), Vera Orso (five Italian cheeses and shaved, seasonal truffles), mezzalune (1/2 margherita and 1/2 stuffed pizza), tricolore (a salami-and-cheese medley MacQuaid equated to “two calzones and a margherita.” “There’s a lot going on in that one,” he pledged”), quattro staggioni and Vesuvius (stuffed with buffalo burrata).
The near uniform 12-inch pizzas are expected to run between $6-$19.They’ll also offer homemade antipasti, fried snacks (arancini, fritto misto), specialty calzones and build-your-own pizzas.
Meanwhile, MacQuaid said his wife and partner, Thea, remains hard at work on constructing a beverage program centered around craft brews (look for four draft lines and around a dozen bottles) and Southern Italian wines.
“I can’t wait for people … to see us in action,” the long patient pie maker gushed.
Pizzeria Orso: 400 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church; 703-226-3460; www.pizzeriaorso.com. Open for lunch and dinner daily.