GlycoNet alumnus on developing tools for chemical glycomics

Ali Chou • Posted: December 19, 2020

In 2012, Dr. Samy Cecioni left France, where he completed all his education, and decided to move to Canada for a post-doctoral position.

Dr. Cecioni became a GlycoNet HQP when the Network was in its infancy. He joined a team of six scientists for a project in Dr. David Vocadlo’s group at Simon Fraser University.

Fast-forward to February, 2019, Samy Cecioni was appointed Assistant Professor at l’Université de Montréal and established his research lab. Reflecting on his career path, Prof. Cecioni knows he has made the right decision. “The extraordinary support that I have received from my mentors and the scientific community in Canada has really been instrumental in my desire to start my independent career here,” he says.

We asked him to walk us through his journey and tell us more about what keeps him going.

What are you working on?

We are developing chemical tools and molecular probes that allow us to image the biology of glycans in live cells. When it comes to sugars, the cell is a busy and crowded environment—the assembly and recycling of complex glycans by enzymes but also transient interactions between proteins and carbohydrates are all continuously happening to maintain a healthy cell. We want to design the next generation of molecules that could enable us, and others, to take snapshots of these events, and ultimately to monitor in real time what’s going on in live cells.

What problem does it solve?

The balance between the assembly and breakdown of glycans is an important determinant for health. When this subtle balance is disrupted, cells end up with altered glycan structures at their surface which can perturb cellular function. We now know that this is a hallmark of diseases such as cancer. For example, cancer cells can hijack the glycan machinery to alter glycan recognition and evade our natural defenses. So, this is a very promising area for developing therapeutics, but these processes are very complex and not easy to study using current approaches. That is why it would be extremely valuable to design molecular probes that enable us to image what is happening in the true physiological environment of the cell. Novel strategies would also help to streamline the development of glycomimetic molecules that can directly perturb these processes, restoring the proper balance of glycome dynamics and providing therapeutic benefits.

What inspired you to pursue in this field?

My background is in organic chemistry and, early on, I became very interested in the specificities of carbohydrate chemistry. Joining graduate school, I started reading the glycobiology literature and I recognized that this was a field of underappreciated potential. For my PhD studies, I split two thirds of my time performing syntheses in an organic chemistry lab and one third of my time in a glycobiology lab. I knew this field would emerge and would require expertise from different disciplines to advance.

Then, it boiled down to meeting supportive mentors and I have been particularly lucky on that front. On my first day meeting with my post-doctoral supervisor, David, we sat down and talked about challenges in the fields and ways to address them. It was very exciting to sketch potential chemical designs that could be efficient probes for imaging glycosidase activity in live cells. This project needed both synthetic skills and an ability to work with enzymes and live cells. His mentoring is one of the main reasons why I am where I am today.

Was there a challenge shifting from organic chemistry to glycobiology?

No, I wouldn’t say it’s a shift. This is all science and, with the emergence of fields such as glycomics and deep changes in the industry, we must recognize that it is important to complement our primary skills with the techniques and expertise that are necessary for our research. In that respect, the way GlycoNet is bringing scientists together is a great catalyst. The projects I worked on were highly multidisciplinary and in my lab, we are now starting projects from organic synthesis all the way to their use in cells.

How has your previous work shaped where you are today?

To me, the academic trajectory is very appealing in the sense that, at every stage (undergraduate, graduate student, postdoc, principal investigator), you come in as a beginner and acquire new skills and knowledge, taking on more and more roles. For example, as a HQP, I became involved in project management and training of younger colleagues; as a new professor, I am now learning to finance our research and to take responsibility not just for the projects but for the team. It is important to remind ourselves what the end goal is to train scientists and to do science that could improve people’s lives. This is both humbling and extremely motivating.

Scientifically, my previous work has really convinced me of the importance of comprehensive chemical biology approaches for the field of glycomics. But our experience also shapes what kind of mentor and colleague we aim to become. Mentoring students is a privilege but also a big responsibility when it comes to preparing students for the job market and making sure that funds are available for them to carry the research that will advance their career ambitions.

Like other GlycoNet HQP, Professor Cecioni credits the mentoring he received for helping him gain the confidence he needed to tackle each step of his career. “Having great mentors in my career motivates me to become a good mentor myself,” concludes Cecioni. It is this pay it forward mentality that helps the next generation of scientists to excel.

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