(27.01.2021) Davide Seruggia, PhD, ERC Starting Grant awardee, leaves Harvard School of Medicine to start his own research group at St. Anna Children’s Cancer Research Institute (St. Anna CCRI). The young scientist is looking forward to investigate epigenetic mechanisms of gene regulation in childhood leukemia to discover truly innovative treatment approaches. On his first day, Seruggia tells us his secret of success and explains how Jurassic Park inspired him.
Before he started as Principal Investigator of the Pediatric Leukemia Biology group at St. Anna CCRI, Seruggia (36) was a postdoctoral scientist at Harvard School of Medicine and Boston Children’s Hospital. He recently received one of the highly desirable Starting grants of the European Research Council (ERC) to investigate non-coding regions in the DNA in hematopoiesis and leukemia.
“It’s a great pleasure to welcome Davide Seruggia, a rising star in the world of epigenetics, in Vienna. He comes from one of the leading labs investigating hematopoiesis worldwide, led by Stuart Orkin. It fills me with pride that we have been able to recruit Davide Seruggia as Principal Investigator to our institute”, says Assoc.-Prof. Kaan Boztug, MD, scientific director of St. Anna CCRI.
But why did the promising young scientist choose Vienna, and especially St. Anna CCRI? “It was a perfect match”, explains Seruggia. “I am an expert in epigenetics and can benefit from an environment where there is a lot of knowledge in pediatric oncology. Worldwide, very few institutes are so strongly connected with a children’s hospital. One of them is in Boston, where I came from. Moving to St. Anna CCRI enables me to deepen my expertise in the same context. Besides that I’m looking forward to a great and stimulating scientific environment in Vienna and to strong collaborations with other research institutes.”
From Dinosaurs to the dark side of DNA
Boztug expects new insights into epigenetics of leukemia coming from Seruggia’s lab: “We have learned a lot about leukemia throughout the last decades, leading to a good prognosis for many patients. To cure even more children, deciphering how to control epigenetics opens up completely new possibilities.”
Seruggia explains his approach: “The non-coding regions are like the dark part of the genome, because they are like a language we do not understand. However, we do know, that this part of the DNA is very important, e.g. in the development of leukemia.” To explain what affects the expression of specific genes relevant in leukemia, Seruggia utilizes a model of epigenetics.
“Besides these non-coding regions, I investigate the epigenetic factors that read and speak the language of the non-coding DNA.” Seruggia is convinced, that there is a huge potential to apply the findings in this research area in childhood cancer treatment and diagnostics. If you, for instance are unable to target an oncogene directly, you could try to control the epigenetic factors that influence this oncogene.
The idea of exchanging or controlling parts of the DNA has always impressed Seruggia. “When I was 13, I saw the blockbuster Jurassic Park and I really liked the scene when the protagonists find some ancient DNA, which was broken up, and they fix it by adding some frog DNA. In this way, they re-created the dinosaurs. When I was a kid that was really fascinating to me.” Many years later, he realized, “Now, working in the lab, I do exactly what I was fascinated by when I was watching the movie.”
Choose talented colleagues and connect
Besides making the most out of one’s possibilities and always pushing the boundaries, Seruggia has another tip for young scientists to establish themselves. For him, collaboration is the key to success. “You always have waiting periods during experiments in the lab. Instead of waiting, I recommend to connect and get into new projects led by other people. Then, other people come to your project and help you. This is a positive feedback loop. Five years later you realize that you did much more than you would have done when just working on your own individual project.”
Of course, it doesn’t always work out like that. “You need to have a sense for the right people for particular collaborations and choose wisely.”
Gut feeling to figure out the focus
Another essential prerequisite for Seruggia is the right gut feeling in addition to rationality, in order to ask relevant questions. ”We have the possibility to do many experiments. The challenge is to figure out, which experiment is really needed. You can find something, that seems apparently useless and very basic biology like CRISPR, and then ten years later you receive a nobel prize for it. Being able to pick what is an interesting question is the most difficult part for a scientist. Either you have a talent for asking the right questions or not. Maybe you are able to learn it from your supervisors. Maybe you just have it right from the cradle. So ask me again in five years.”
>>> Are you interested in joining the pediatric leukemia biology group? Davide Seruggia is looking for talented students and post-docs. Learn more and apply here: https://www.ccri.at/job-openings/
About Davide Seruggia, PhD
Davide Seruggia, PhD, joined St. Anna Children’s Cancer Research Institute as Principal Investigator of the Pediatric Leukemia Biology Group in January 2021. He graduated in Biotechnology at the University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy, and a obtained a PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the CNB-CSIC in Madrid, where he studied non-coding regulatory DNA sequences in the mouse. During his postdoc with Stuart H. Orkin at the Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, he trained in hematology, epigenetics and genomics.
Among others, Seruggia has first-authored publications in high-ranked journals such as Nature Genetics and Molecular Cell. The scientist received several fellowships, awards and grants, most recently his research project was selected for funding with the prestigious ERC Starting grant.