|Meet Our Expert is our newest interview series where you will get to meet the talented people behind Cergentis' success on a personal level. In this interview, Andrea gives a personal account of his scientific journey, and opens up about the emotional impact that accompanies translational research. From Rome to Belgium and finally, the Netherlands, Andrea helps us unfold the series of events that has led him to joining Cergentis. A multi-talented scientist, with unique and fun hobbies, who is motivated to leverage his expertise and extensive experience from academia to continue driving science forward in a commercial setting. Don't miss out on this interview to learn more about one of our newest recruits, who also shares his perspective on the work environment here at Cergentis!|
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Rome, Italy, where I did my education until university. I went to La Sapienza, the main and oldest university in Rome, where I studied biology and specialized in physiopathology. I’m actually a physiopathologist by trade.
How did you come to pick biology as your major?
Initially, biology was not on my radar to be honest. The day I went to university to apply, I wanted to sign up for physics. And then, when I was there, I saw this biology board and thought “That’s something I didn’t think about!” I liked biology in high school. I really liked some of the chapters like evolutionary biology, molecular biology, etc. When I came back home I remember my mother asking me: “So, did you sign up for physics?” It was a bit of a “shock” when I told her that I had applied for biology instead! [laughs]
It seems like you were already interested in science since you were little! What actually triggered your interest for it?
The high school I went to in Rome was, I’m not sure if that is still the case, the best in terms of scientific education. During the last 2 years, for example, we had science fairs where people from outside could attend. We had to explain different topics like Einstein theories, how the emission spectrum of a chemical element works, that kind of stuff. That was really a “push”, and in the end that was great! We really had a lot of input from different scientific fields.
In my family, my parents are both very analytical people, but also very creative. My sister and I are really “two sides of the coin”. She went more for the classical and literature studies. I remember that, for one of her birthdays, she was given a microscope. But she barely used it! So, I started using it [laughs]. I later found out at university that almost everyone who was studying biology had also received something similar during their childhood [laughs]. So that triggers your passion in a way.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your unexpected journey into the world of biology? Were you satisfied with your decision in the end?
Yes, I really liked it! I really enjoyed it from day one. In Italy, after 3 years, you have to choose a specialization. At the time, my interest was more on the pathology-side, to go from bench to bedside. So, I chose physiopathology. In the end, I graduated with top-score in 2004.
You also have to do a 2-year internship for your thesis. I started looking around and found this lab at the Regina Elena Cancer Institute in Rome, that was working on breast cancer. The lab was coordinated by Paola Nisticó, and they had just identified a new marker and were going to characterize it. I liked the project and the people, so I decided to join. The lab was composed of an immunology lab and a molecular biology lab. In the end, we published a paper describing different splice variants of this marker. According to the aggressiveness of the tumor, you either have one isoform or the other. The lab had a database of more than 2000 patients because it was part of the main cancer hospital in Rome. But personally, it was also tough because we were receiving patient samples. We had to check whether patients had a follow-up treatment (e.g. radiotherapy, chemotherapy, etc.). I remember a case that shocked me, and still does today. We found something interesting in a tumor sample. We knew that this person was a girl, that she underwent follow-up and had another case of breast cancer after a few years. When we asked whether we could have her sample, the answer was: no, because this person had passed away… And that was tough for me honestly. At that point, I told myself that I didn’t want to do this anymore. As much as I liked the translational aspect, it’s difficult to take distance from these kinds of things…
What brought you to Belgium for your PhD and what was your research focused on?
I wanted to do a PhD abroad because I wanted to explore other cultures. After many “roads”, I ended up at KU Leuven, in Belgium, in Danny Huylebroeck’s lab. They had just started studying this transcription factor (TF) Zeb2. I mainly focused on the biochemistry of this TF and investigated its mechanisms in the nucleus. That was a very nice journey. I’m still in touch with the people with whom I did my PhD. They are just so amazing, and we are a very nice group! It’s kind of rare to find these kinds of tight bonds. Helping each other out was something very important there. Meaning, if someone was in need, you would drop your things and try to help as much as possible. I really like this mentality.
What did you do after your PhD?
In 2013, I moved to Rotterdam as a postdoc. Actually, it was still with my former boss Danny Huylebroeck. He had become, in the meantime, the head of the department of biology at Erasmus MC and he wanted someone to start up the lab and bring in new ideas and research lines. It was a nice way of showing me his trust. I could start up everything and that’s what I did. I ended up training 3 very good PhDs on different topics. But my main research focus was on neurodevelopmental rare diseases. In particular, we focused on a very rare disease called Mowat-Wilson Syndrome (MOWS) caused by mutations in Zeb2.
There, I also went back to being in contact with clinicians and had access to patient materials/datasets again. In the end, I came back to something that I thought I wouldn’t, because of the too many associated implications. But then, I found myself to really miss that part. Basic research is fun, but I really missed the applicability to the field and to the patients. Therefore, our goal was to identify new markers and eventually find potential drug targets that could be modulated with compounds to ameliorate patient outcome. During this period, I was invited a few times to give speeches at patients’ associations. It was very nice. I really liked it.
What were some of your most important discoveries at Erasmus MC?
We found that there were some MOWS patients without a detectable variant in the Zeb2 coding sequence. I then started reasoning that this might be a consequence of chromatin conformation or perhaps, that this might be a result of some mutations in enhancers. In that same department, there was a technique developed in the group of Frank Grosveld called T2C (i.e. targeted chromatin capture), which we ended up applying and optimizing.
In the end, we also started piling up a lot of NGS data. We wanted to combine everything to have something functional. So, I started “playing” and analyzing with these big data, which forced me to go back and learn some programming languages. So, I started becoming trained by another bioinformatician, in using R and Python, to wrangle these data. That really helped and speed up a lot of the productivity in the lab. Basically, that’s also how I landed up at Cergentis.
Has it always been a personal ambition to eventually transition to the commercial side?
To be honest, I had a very nice academic career. But you know, in academia there is also sometimes a lack of focus. And I wanted to have a clear goal. On top of that, there are also less resources. So instead of helping each other, you sometimes find yourself competing with others. And when you end up spending a lot of time talking about politics, non-science nor project-related things, thinking about funding, how to defend your research then it starts to become annoying. And this thing about impact-factor, this was also something that really ruined science for me.
Therefore, I wanted to move to another sector. I needed a place with a clear focus. A place where everybody would have different skill sets but would combine their expertise towards a common target. So, then I found this job opening at Cergentis, within Judith’s Service team and decided to apply. It all went very fast, which I was also very happy about! Since the first interview, I was put at ease. I could truly be myself.
What specifically caught your attention about Cergentis?
Initially, I was really intrigued by the fact that there could be patients with diseases but without the mutations in their coding sequence. But if you have to screen all of them using WGS, that would just be crazy in terms of cost. So, I started investigating and saw this speech from Erik Splinter (CTO of Cergentis) about TLA. It was a talk he gave at the symposium for Frank Grosveld's 70th birthday. During Erik’s presentation, I thought “this is really cool! That’s something we can actually use. I have to keep an eye on these guys because they seem to be doing very good!” We actually enquired with Cergentis afterwards [laughs]. Since then, Cergentis has always been on my radar. I find its TLA technology very intriguing in terms of the technique but also, in terms of its broad applicability to different fields. The fact that it can be used to identify transgene integration, QC genetically engineered mouse models, reliably pick up genetic variants, and much more. Recently, I also found out about its relevance in gene therapy and some of the work we did for customers working on CAR-T therapy. That’s really really cool!
You’ve been working here for 4 months now! How did you experience it so far?
I like it! I don’t have any regrets because of the people and the mentality here. I found what I was looking for. Everybody is focused on improving and achieving the same goal. I also have a nice collaboration with the Bioinformatics team, for instance with George (Head of Bioinformatics & Software Development) and Vera (Product Developer). It’s nice to be able to collaborate and to be able to give suggestions. Indeed, if I have an idea, I can always share it with Judith or whoever appropriate/in charge. And it would always be welcomed and discussed. That really makes it feel like a cooperation between all the departments.
Could you briefly describe your current role and responsibilities for our readers?
I’m a Project Scientist at Cergentis. Since I’ve just started, I’m still in this learning phase. I’m learning all different kinds of projects. I like the heterogeneity of the work because you have to think on different levels for different kinds of projects. I also really enjoy the more complex projects. For example, the gene therapy-related project that I am working on with Judith (Head of Services) at the moment. But because it is more complex, it also needs more time to digest in a way and to process the data. But I already gained a lot of expertise and knowledge on so many different things!
Despite the ongoing global health crisis, there were 2 positive events in 2021: (1) you joining our team (2) the Italian team lifting the Euro Cup football trophy this year! Congratulations are in order! During the lockdown, did you get to pick up any old hobbies or develop new ones?
Yes, actually I don’t really follow football [laughs]. But from what I’ve read in the newspaper it did bring a lot of joy, especially in these difficult times. It was a relief for many people and gave a sense of “normality” in a way. Of course, there was also the bad side where a lot of people gathered and were celebrating, which then caused a rise in the cases…
In term of hobbies, already before the pandemic, I started doing calligraphy! As a second acquired skill, as father of a 15 months old toddler, that would be changing diapers [laughs].
Of course, Italian food is notorious for being delicious. Do you happen to cook Italian food?
Yes, I cook! Actually, that’s a funny story. Because just as with every PhD student, at a certain point you just want to quit. And my quit was “you know what? I have some savings. I will just move my skills to cooking and become an actual chef”. I was really intending to do that! But you always have these feelings about unfinished things, that is: your PhD. But I like to cook a lot!
With the COVID-19 vaccination speeding up, are you looking forward to traveling again when the borders will re-open?
Yes! What we, both my wife and I, found liking a lot are: RV tours. We did that in Canada for the first time in British Columbia in 2017. It was really amazing! And we also did the same in Iceland in 2018. That’s really something that we both like. Back in 2018, my wife was invited to give a talk at a congress in Hong Kong, and I said: “OK I’m joining!” [laughs]. So, while she was working at the congress, I was touring Hong Kong and liked it a lot! We really like traveling and we hope to go back to this soon.