Discovering the pathways of a curious mind

Andrea Di Sebastiano

A curious mind is what inspires Andrea Di Sebastiano's fascination with the brain. It also fosters her dedication to the lab and research excellence.

Di Sebastiano, BMSc'07, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow with the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, working in Stephen Ferguson’s lab at Robarts Research Institute.

She received the 2014 Petro Canada Young Innovator Award, recognizing her innovative work as a young researcher and positive impact on the learning environment at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

Her current research focuses on the molecular basis of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s Disease. Her project is looking at G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) in the brain and the role they play in activating intra-cellular signaling pathways.

Di Sebastiano is investigating a particular sub-type of GCPRs, called metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluRs). These mGluRs are involved in the learning and memory functioning of the brain.

“We know how these mGluRs signal, and that they have a lot of binding sites for many different proteins,” she explained. “Because of this binding capability, they act as molecular scaffolds.”

By targeting the specific proteins that bind to mGluRs, the goal is to alter and control signaling pathways in the brain.  

“We’re trying to understand how molecules and proteins may mediate the differential signaling of these receptors and how this impacts disease,” said Di Sebasatiano. “From a clinical perspective, by figuring out what proteins actually modulate this signaling, we may be able to discover better pharmacological targets.”

The idea is to change cell signaling by modulating one protein, rather than creating a global block of all GCPRs through drug therapy. Much of Di Sebastiano’s work to this point has been with the spinophilin protein.

Di Sebastiano is passionate about a range of neurological research, from the behavioural to the biochemical. The possibilities for discovery keep her motivated. “The brain is so complicated, but it’s also interesting and fun,” she said. “It’s like a puzzle that I want to figure out.”

Di Sebastiano completed her BMSc at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry in 2007, and continued her studies at the School in behavioural neurosciences.

Her lab moved to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she graduated with her doctoral degree in 2012.

The Ferguson lab appealed to her because it was a departure from her doctoral training. “I’d had lots of training in the behavioural neurosciences and I was interested in looking at how things work at more of a cell-based level,” she said.

The other key factor in her return to Western University was more personal – Di Sebastiano’s husband is a second-year resident in neurosurgery at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. With busy schedules, they try to spend as much time together as possible.

Her career goal is to become an independent scientist. “My dream is to be able to take my ideas and curiosities and translate them to my own research lab.”