Faculty Feature: Francesca Marassi, PhD

Francesca Marassi, joined MCW as the Chair of the Department of Biophysics in 2022. She was previously a Professor at the NCI-designated Cancer Center at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, California and served as Scientific Director of its Structural Biology Core. In her new role as MCW Cancer Center associate director of shared resources, Dr. Marassi will partner in the leadership and development of each of the center’s six shared resource cores, which include Biorepository and Tissue Analytics; Biostatistics; Cell Therapy; Geospatial, Epidemiology and Outcomes; Structural Biology; and Translational Metabolomics. Dr. Marassi’s expertise as a researcher, mentor, professor, and now MCW eminent scholar, has led her to give more than 100 lectures, workshops and presentations across the globe. She has served as Associate Editor of Molecular Membrane Biology and Frontiers in Molecular biosciences. In 2020, she was named a member of the NIH’s Macromolecular Structure and Function C Study Section.

View Dr. Marassi’s profile and full list of research publications.

Q&A with Francesca

What is the focus of your research and what do you hope to accomplish through this work?
My lab focuses on understanding the structures and functions of proteins embedded in cellular membranes or bound to lipids. Many of these proteins play important roles in host-pathogen interactions, ectopic deposit formation in degenerative diseases and cancer-related programmed cell death, and their dysfunctions are linked with devastating diseases. A major goal of my biomedical research is to understand how these proteins function at the molecular level, as these represent principal targets for therapeutic drug development.

View the Project Wonder piece focused on the lab’s research of age-related macular degeneration.

Why did you choose to join the MCW Cancer Center?
I’m a firm believer in the MCW motto “knowledge changing lives,” and in the Cancer Center’s mission to advance cancer cures through fundamental and clinical research. The MCW Cancer Center has an exceptional array of state-of-the-art technology and expertise; its resource directors and staff are world-renowned for their scientific contributions and technological developments. I’m also excited to be part of the innovations happening in cancer biology and magnetic resonance technology, two areas in which our cancer center excels.

Which shared resources and technologies do you think will be key for driving cancer discovery in the future?
Structural Biology—spanning from the nanometer scale of genes, proteins, and lipids, to the millimeter scale of tissues and organs—will play a tremendous role in furthering our understanding of cancer and translating that knowledge into cures. The MCW Cancer Center already has state-of-the-art resources for this type of research, enabling investigators to conduct advanced atomic-level studies on the structure and function of cancer related molecules, macromolecules, and their interactions with drugs and biologicals. Our new cryogenic electron microscope (cryo-EM) and scanner for positron electron tomography with magnetic resonance imaging (PET/MRI) will also be key for advancing discoveries and keeping the Cancer Center at the forefront of revolutionary cancer research.

What advice would you give to early-career investigators who want to leverage shared resources to advance their research?
Science is only as good as the data, and having access to modern technology is essential for advancing research. A good way to become familiar with technologies is by meeting the exceptional scientists who run the shared resources and establishing working relationships with them. It’s also important to keep in mind that there are many different ways to work with and utilize these services. I invite investigators at all career stages to discuss their specific project needs with our resource directors and staff, and encourage them to take advantage of the expert training and consultation that many of our shared resources provide.

Can you provide an example of an innovative project that is being supported by our shared resourced?
One example is the phase 2 ECOG-ACRIN EAF151 trial, a first-of-its-kind glioblastoma study being led locally by Jennifer Connelly, MD, and nationally by MCW’s Kathleen Schmainda, PhD, and Brown University’s Jerrold Boxerman, MD, PhD, FACR. In the trial, investigators will study how well dynamic susceptibility contrast-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging works in measuring relative cerebral blood volume for early response to bevacizumab—a targeted drug therapy—in patients with recurring glioblastoma. While previous trials have incorporated advanced imaging methods for secondary assessments, EAF151 is the first to prioritize evaluation of the advanced MRI biomarker. If successful, it could lead to a fundamental shift in personalized medicine approaches. This work is enabled by the exceptional MRI resources supported by our MCW Cancer Center.