Stefano Gustincich is a molecular biologist whose specialty is in the genomics of the nervous system. He received his BSc in biology in Trieste and his doctorate from the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA). His story is a textbook case of how grants from the Armenise Harvard Foundation can allow an Italian researcher to literally “bring back home” skills and scientific experience gained in the best laboratories around the world. After his PhD he spent ten years of research abroad, working for a long period at the Harvard Medical School in the laboratory of Elio Raviola where he specialized in genomics and cutting-edge molecular biology. In 2003, thanks to the Career Development Award he established a laboratory of neurogenomics at SISSA in his hometown Trieste. In 2015 Gustincich became the Director of Neuroscience at IIT, the Italian Institute of Technologies.
Gustincich’s lab studies the molecular mechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases, in particular Parkinson’s disease. His team tries to understand why at a particular moment of a person’s life certain brain cells, those that release dopamine, begin to die. Studying which genes are expressed in those particular cells may help the understanding of what difference there is between those that will degenerate and those that will survive.
Above all, it can help in detecting and treating these diseases in time, which as of now is not possible. When the first symptoms of Parkinson’s appear, in fact, the situation is already compromised: at that point, 80 percent of the dopaminergic cells have already died. This means that the disease actually begins from 5 to 10 years before the symptoms emerge. Gustincich’s team tries to understand what happens in the brain when there are no symptoms, and try to identify “biomarkers” in the blood that indicate that the disease has begun its course.
For his research Gustinich relies on various technologies, from transgenic mice with which he studies the dopaminergic neurons in the retina, to bioinformatics that allow the analysis of millions of short RNA sequences in the proximity of neurons and trace back to that stretch of DNA from which they originate.