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A Shared Frontier

Lecture reveals connections between physics, gene therapy

A Shared Frontier

Mauro Giacca, director of ICGEB

Thirteen kilometres from ICTP, Mauro Giacca and co-workers at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) genetically engineer viruses to treat cardiovascular disorders. The work seems distant from theoretical physics.

But the field of gene therapy offers many opportunities for physics research, said Giacca after giving a seminar on gene therapy Tuesday at ICTP. Giacca, who is the director of ICGEB's Trieste component, explained that determining which genes to target remains a puzzle. Physicists can help by computationally modelling the relevant genetic pathways, for instance.

"This shows how essential it is for an institute like ours to do multidisciplinary talks," said ICTP astrobiologist Julian Chela-Flores, who coordinated the seminar. "All these areas have an enormous shared frontier."

The most rapidly developing area in gene therapy is the treatment of organs that cannot regenerate, such as the retina, brain, or heart, Giacca said. His lab works on potential genetic treatments for cardiovascular disorders. To help relieve damaged blood vessels, the team uses a gene that spurs the formation of new capillaries. A harmless vector—the adeno-associated virus—carries the gene into skeletal muscle cells and causes new blood vessels to appear. There are possible side effects, however. The capillaries become too numerous and leaky if the gene is active for too long.

Much research remains to be done. With an eye to the future, Giacca and colleagues are expanding an ICGEB library of human genes that could be tested as therapeutics.


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