ERC Grantee: Elisa Cimetta

High risk... high gain!

"More than once I've been told: 'why are you even trying? It's so hard to get it!'.. well.. if you never try, you'll never get it, that's for sure!"

Elisa Cimetta is a Chemical Engineer by training. "Engineers tend to use different languages and tools than those of Life Sciences Scientists, but we can find a common ground, as the laws of Thermodynamics, Physics, and Mathematics also apply to biological phenomena".

Now she is PI of an ERC Starting Grant studying Neuroblastoma, a poor-prognosis pediatric malignant solid tumor. "It's a huge responsibility, but the rewarding feeling that you get when you see your team of young scientists grow, study, thrive, bond, work with enthusiasm even when the experiments fail and, most importantly, when they succeed... priceless!"


 

Prof. Cimetta, you were awarded an ERC Starting Grant in December 2017. Where were you when you got the Grant and where are you working now?

I was, and still am, part of the Department of Industrial Engineering here at UniPd, back then as tenure-track Assistant Professor, now as tenured Associate Professor.

Can you tell us something about your research project MICRONEX?

Of course! The acronym stands for "Microbioreactor platforms as in vivo-like systems to probe the role of Neuroblastoma-derived Exosomes in cancer dissemination". But let me first go back a little.. I'm a Chemical Engineer by training, and have been doing research on biomedically-related themes since my Masters Thesis. During those years I've come to the realization that us Engineers can actively contribute to fields thought to be out of our "comfort zones". Engineers tend to use different languages and tools than those of Life Sciences Scientists, but we can find a common ground, as the laws of Thermodynamics, Physics, and Mathematics also apply to biological phenomena! That being said, MICRONEX focuses on the development of microbioreactors (miniaturized devices) capable of reconstructing biologically sound niches to study cancer cells in precisely controlled conditions. We are trying to capture some of the characteristics of the "real" in vivo environment where cells normally reside, in order to better understand their behavior. Specifically, our aim with MICRONEX is to decode how exosomes (vesicles secreted by cells and used as messengers to deliver the signals they carry) mediate the metastatic spread of Neuroblastoma, a poor-prognosis pediatric malignant solid tumor. The longer-term goal is of course that of developing novel treatments in the fight against this and other forms of cancer.

What are the peculiarities of an ERC Starting Grant proposal?

ERC-StGs are defined as "high risk – high gain" projects, so their conceptualization must take that into account. Disruptive ideas, solid plans, clear vision of the potential pitfalls and alternative approaches are all a must. A strong proposal focuses on relevant issues, on all aspects of research, and is carried out by "the right person, at the right time". More than once I've been told: "why are you even trying? It's so hard to get it!".. well.. if you never try, you'll never get it, that's for sure! So if you think you have what it takes, just go for it and you won't regret it.

How was it for you to become Principal Investigator of such a research grant?

It's a game (and life) changer. It gives you freedom to conduct your research at the highest possible standards, a great driving force. Another amazing aspect is related to the team you'll be able to build. It's a huge responsibility, but the rewarding feeling that you get when you see your team of young scientists grow, study, thrive, bond, work with enthusiasm even when the experiments fail and, most importantly, when they succeed... priceless!

What do you expect from the end of your ERC project?

First of all, I hope we'll get to a point where the identification of a novel therapeutic approach in the fight against Neuroblastoma is in sight. Then of course I expect that the results of our research will be the starting point for other future projects, and also that our technologies could be successfully adapted to other lines of research and/or adopted by other laboratories to aid their activities.

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