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What sparks a medical breakthrough?

Sometimes it’s about more than science

Hear more about Dr. Spinelli’s exciting research. Watch this video.

The answer may not be found under a microscope or by scanning reams of published scientific studies. It may not be hiding on a lab bench or inside a test tube. In fact, the inspiration for an important medical discovery may stem from something old-fashioned—a conversation.

“You can’t diminish the importance of collaboration when trying to solve a scientific problem,” said Jessica Spinelli, PhD, assistant professor of molecular medicine. “Interdisciplinary research is by far the new frontier of academic research. We learn from each other and that makes our knowledge stronger.” 

Dr. Spinelli and her team had made a major discovery in mitochondrial metabolism—a new metabolite or small molecule that is a broken-down component of the food we eat. After being recruited by many large medical schools nationwide to further her work, she decided to come to UMass Chan in 2022 because of its culture of collaboration. 

“This new metabolite has never been detected before in humans, mice or any mammal,” she explained. She uses specialized equipment called a mass spectrometer to view the molecules. “This new metabolite turns out to be very important in regulating the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell. This is relevant for any disease where oxygen levels drop very low, such as in illnesses like cancer, or during heart attack or stroke.” 

While researchers at some institutions work in siloed labs, keeping their strategies private until significant findings are produced, investigators at UMass Chan take the opposite approach. They believe that sharing their goals and approaches to discovery with each other can bring about new knowledge, even when the diseases in play are very different. 

Joel Richter, PhD, the Arthur F. Koskinas Chair in Neuroscience and professor of molecular medicine, has dedicated much of his career to understanding Fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and the most common single gene cause of autism. 

“These patients are in tough shape. They have low IQs, they have anxiety and can become aggressive,” said Dr. Richter. “We’ve discovered that the mutation in a gene that causes the syndrome may be correctable through molecular therapy.”

But in order to determine if a therapy is successful, investigators need to capture what is happening in the cell when treatments are given. 

“Jessica’s lab is literally one floor above mine and I thought, ‘Could this be the answer?’” recalled Richter, who sent her a quick email. “With her instrumentation and her intellectual wizardry, she’s able to look at thousands of metabolites with high levels of statistical confidence and unparalleled accuracy.”

Their work together has been a success. They have filed a patent that he noted “looks very promising.” 

Roger Davis, PhD, FRS, the H. Arthur Smith Chair in Cancer Research and chair and professor of molecular medicine, hired Spinelli. There are plans to open a new, larger lab on campus that can bring in more scientific collaborators from all over the world.

“We saw the potential of Jessica’s work immediately,” noted Dr. Davis, who also leads a team studying type 2 diabetes. His lab has teamed up with Spinelli’s to look at the role these metabolites might play in new treatments for diabetes. 

In fact, just one year after joining UMass Chan, Spinelli is now collaborating with 36 different labs on promising work that could help solve the mysteries of lupus and other autoimmune diseases as well as certain neurological disorders and infectious diseases.

“What’s great is you can just be walking down the hall, see an investigator from another lab and strike up a conversation,” said Spinelli. “People are so easy to collaborate with here. They understand that collaboration helps all of us.” 

Learn more about how we are advancing together.