Pathways Summer 2019

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Vitronectin is a major blood protein that controls immunity, coagulation and many diseases including cancer

“The emerging threat of bacterial drug resistance makes our work particularly important.” Francesca Marassi, Ph.D.

team use nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, an MRI-like technology that helps them peer inside proteins. Recently, they’ve identified not only the structure of vitronectin but also the structure of a Y. pestis protein that attacks vitronectin. Now, the team is mapping the interaction that occurs between those two proteins, as well as other interactions in the immune system. “If you can see the molecular picture of what’s happening, in detail, then you can design a drug that targets that,” she says. “It’s like a lock and key.” BETWEEN TWO WORLDS Originally from the small city of Mantua, Italy, Marassi moved to Toronto, Canada, with her family when she was 12. “I loved to draw and paint, but I also loved math and chemistry and physics,” she says of her childhood. “I was always in between the two worlds.” Structural biology—with its emphasis on shapes, patterns and symmetries—turned out to be a perfect fit. After earning her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Toronto, she did a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania and then joined the structural biology division at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, part of the Penn campus. She came to Sanford Burnham Prebys in 2000. “Having the freedom to pursue your ideas is the most important thing, and that’s what I have here,” she says.

Outside of her lab, she likes to hike and spend time with her husband (a biochemist) and their dog. And, of course, draw. Recently, she’s shared some of her artistic side with her colleagues—sketching a pencil drawing for some campus posters, and creating computer-generated, stylized images of various scientific discoveries at the Institute. The images were made into a mural just around the corner from her office. And while Marassi doesn’t call herself an artist, she notes that the two worlds share some commonalities. “There’s something to this process of just getting lost in a project that you can experience with science, with art, with writing, with any sort of activity that engages your imaginative side,” she says. “That’s what attracts me to what I do.” That, and the joy of discovering both form and function in a beautiful, symmetrical protein. “The rewarding part is being able to make a contribution to biology,” she notes, then smiles. “The really fun part is doing it.”