From New York to Hamburg to study neurological diseases: the research path of Chiara Melis

Our journey to discover Italian excellence in the world takes us to Hamburg where we meet Chiara Melis, employed by a large biotech company for the study of neurological diseases.

trasmissione dopaminergica

The study of neurological diseases by an Italian researcher in the world.

Chiara Melis, born in 1986, with her huge dark eyes, has the look of someone who has fought to follow her dream and to make Science (yes, the one with a capital S), one of her reasons for living.

Chiara Melis, Italian researcher in Hamburg

Today she is employed at a large biotech company (Evotec) in Hamburg after a 4-year experience in the Big Apple at the laboratory of Michelle Ehrlich (Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai), during which he helped to clarify the nebulous panorama that unfortunately still characterizes dystonia. And he did so by employing all his energy in a study focused on the use of the animal model (mouse, in this case), which aimed to evaluate whether monogenic dystonia had molecular characteristics similar to levodopa-induced dyskinesias.

Italian excellence in the world: the path of Chiara Melis, researcher for the treatment of neurological diseases

Hi Chiara, how did you get to New York?

Hello and, above all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell me about my studies. I arrived in New York chasing my two greatest loves: Tomas, who had moved to New York a year earlier, also for work, and who would later become my husband in New York, and research, which unfortunately in my country of origin did not leave me much space but that in New York gave me so many opportunities.

What was the research topic?

The topic has always been dystonia. I have studied different types, deriving from different gene mutations that anticipated their appearance or caused more or less severe disabilities. I studied it through animal behavior, analyzing the motility of mice, after having stimulated the dopaminergic pathway with different methods and always after stimulation, I analyzed the cascade of signal transduction: from dopaminergic receptors to transcription factors.

Evaluation of motility in the mouse model of dystonia (video provided)

How can we summarize the results you have achieved?

In summary, we found that the signaling pathway leading to phosphorylation of some kinases after dopaminergic stimulation was abnormal in three different types of dystonia. But these abnormalities in the nigrostriatal postsynaptic pathways are points of convergence with other movement disorders (such as levo-dopa-induced dyskinesias), and potentially could share therapeutic targets with these movement disorders.

There are very few drugs used to treat dystonia at the moment, and not very successful. So discovering that the mechanism that causes these pathologies is similar to that of others, where experimentation has already led to better results in terms of therapies, was a big step for us.

The return to Europe: Hamburg

When and why did you decide to return to Europe? And why Hamburg?

New York has the ability to fill your soul and doing research at Mount Sinai has really taught me a lot from different points of view. In New York our family grew up, our little girl arrived and only after a few months of life made it clear to us what our main needs were and above all how much we missed our family. We wanted to get closer to them and have the opportunity to visit them more often and spend more time with them.

We knew (my husband is a researcher like me) that continuing to do research at high levels would be difficult returning to Italy. Northern Europe was the place where I could still aspire to do quality research and at the same time have a balanced life. In Germany, the family is at the center of everything, the quality of life is very high and almost everything works flawlessly. I wanted to live in a big city (after living in New York it's hard to downsize) but not too chaotic. Hamburg is a nice mix. And it gave us the good fortune to both find what we were finding. Too bad it rains 300 days a year! 

What do you do now?

I work for a CRO (clinical research organization), I develop projects on behalf of Big Pharma; therefore, I divide my time between laboratory experiments and a very close relationship with customers, to whom I report and collaborate with, always looking for the right compromise between method effectiveness and market competitiveness.

Specifically, I continue to study neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's. I study the levels of RNA through methods of In situ Hybridization of the latest generation, hoping to find the right way to decrease the levels of Tau, involved in the pathology of Alzheimer's. 

What would you suggest to women who would like to take this path?

Surely the choice of the industry in which one would like to go should be made consciously and based on certain criteria: one's background, the company's pipeline and ethics, unquestionably one of the fundamental points for me, where the quality of research it must always come first. Having a good communication network to get this information is definitely a good place to start. Leaving the academy for industry is a big step, which is sometimes frightening. Above all, I think it scares women, who are still in the minority in certain work environments. Find the courage to assert your knowledge, be proud of yourself and your knowledge. And strive for a better quality of life than what usually accompanies the world of research. 

Thanks a lot, Chiara. Good luck for your future!