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Nicoli receives 2022 AHA Established Investigator Award

October 14, 2022
by Elisabeth Reitman

Stefania Nicoli, PhD, associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine (YSM) Section of Cardiovascular Medicine and the Department of Genetics, has received the Established Investigator Award from the American Heart Association (AHA).

The five-year, $400,000 grant supports mid-career professionals with a demonstrated expertise in cardiovascular or cerebrovascular science. The research proposal, “The hidden life of mRNAs: a non-coding role as sensors of endothelial cells mechanotransduction,” will investigate how endothelial cells sense and regulate the extracellular matrix (ECM). Based on preliminary findings, the proposal will explore the hypothesis that localized messenger RNA (mRNAs) act as non-coding regulatory molecules for biomechanical proteins. This work suggests a novel mechanistic function for cytosolic mRNA.

The Nicoli lab members working on this project include Liana Boraas, PhD, a current postdoctoral fellow, Lauren Thornton third year PhD student and Pieter Martino, a PhD candidate at the Yale Combined Program in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS). The research team will employ innovative approaches to track single molecule mRNAs in collaboration with Siyuan Wang, PhD, assistant professor of genetics and cell biology, in endothelia cells and live tissues under mechanical force, such as blood vessels under ECM and blood flow forces.

The findings could have implications for the development of future mRNA therapeutics where, without affecting endogenous protein level, mRNA may correct aberrant endothelial cell behaviors, such as matrix-associated cell behaviors, that contribute to fibrotic injury, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Nicoli earned her BS in pharmaceutical biotechnology in 2003 from the University of Milan and a PhD in Biomedical Biotechnology in 2007 from University of Brescia. Following post-doctoral research at UMASS Medical School, where she identified how microRNAs regulate cardiovascular development, she joined the faculty of UMASS in 2011. Nicoli was recruited to Yale as an assistant professor in the Section of Cardiovascular Medicine and the Yale Cardiovascular Research Center (CVRC) in 2012 and currently serves as a CVRC co-director with Anne Eichmann, PhD, Daniel Greif, MD, and Kathleen Martin, PhD. In 2018 Nicoli was promoted to associate professor. She also serves as director of Yale Zebrafish Phenotyping Core for Precision Medicine.

The Nicoli lab has been awarded funding from the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Disease, the United States Public Health Service, Leducq Foundation, Gilead Sciences, and the AHA. Nicoli is also a recipient of the Judah Folkman Award in Vascular Biology. On Oct. 15 she presented "RNA based mechanism guiding endothelial cell behaviors" at the 22nd International Vascular Biology Meeting.

Previous recipients of the AHA Established Investigator Award include Anthony Koleske, PhD, Ensign Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and of Neuroscience and Greif in 2019.

Submitted by Elisabeth Reitman on October 14, 2022