A Research Career Soars with Flight Attendants' Funding
Elena Levantini, Ph.D., credits a foundation launched by flight attendants for getting her research career off the ground. A stem cell scientist at BIDMC, Levantini focuses on the regulation and differentiation of protein pathways involved in the development of lung cancer, asthma, and other diseases. Since coming to the medical center from Italy in 2002, she has received both a Young Clinical Scientist Award and a Clinical Innovators Award, with funding total-ing almost $800,000, from the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute (FAMRI). "Their support has been a life-changing experience," says Levantini. "It gave me a lot of freedom to investigate and also respect in my field. I've been very lucky."
FAMRI was established to make the best of an unfortunate situation-a class action law suit against the tobacco industry for diseases and deaths suffered by non-smoking flight attendants from exposure to secondhand smoke. From the settlement, a non-profit biomedical research foundation dedicated to the early detection, prevention, treatment, and cure of these condi-tions was born. Levantini, who has become increasingly involved with the organization over the years, has been impressed with the members' personal commitment to having an impact on medicine. "The flight attendants come to listen, to learn," she notes. "They're starting to learn some of the basic science. They're interested in understanding things and helping as much as possible."
They have certainly helped Levantini, whose work centers around a gene called C/EBPα (cee-ee-bee-pee-alpha). The connections she found between this pathway and the devel-opment of lung cancer and, more recently, asthma-two serious diseases with well-documented links to tobacco exposure-caught FAMRI's attention. Originally known as a relevant pathway in leukemia, Levantini was curious if C/EBPα might also be involved in the growth of solid tumors. Starting with lung cancer, she found this was indeed the case. "We tracked exactly how C/EBPα was involved in lung cells in collaboration with other doctors at the hospital," she says. "And we found that it was a tumor suppressor that is down-regulated in 50 percent of primary lung cancers-so it's really an important gene." She also discovered that C/EBPα's expression changes when exposed to tobacco smoke.
With the ongoing support from FAMRI, Levantini is taking her work with this single pathway in a variety of directions, from exploring a very promising drug candidate she's uncovered for C/EBPα-related lung cancers to better understanding C/EBPα's role in the muscular contrac-tions of asthma. "I have all these ideas about C/EBPα's involvement in many other diseases, and then I try to test them," she says. "But you can't have expertise on everything. So I discuss my ideas with colleagues working in other fields, and when I see that they are practical and really know their stuff, then I want to work with them! Finding the right collab-orators can be difficult, but this is a really good environment." Levantini is grateful to FAMRI for giving her funding with the flexibility to follow new leads, something every researcher covets. "This is the challenge: not enough time and not enough money," she says. "It's nothing original to say, but it's the truth. Besides that I would be really happy."