GlycoNet welcomes three new Network Investigators

Drs. Chantelle Capicciotti, Samy Cecioni, and Lisa Willis further strengthen multidisciplinary expertise of the Network

Drs. Chantelle Capicciotti (left), Samy Cecioni (middle), and Lisa Willis (right) join GlycoNet as Network Investigators. (Photo: Dr. Willis’ photo supplied by John Ulan)

By Ali Chou

Three researchers—Drs. Chantelle Capicciotti, Samy Cecioni, and Lisa Willis—have been confirmed as Network Investigators (NIs) by GlycoNet’s Research Management Committee and Board of Directors. The new NIs will help expand the scale and scope of GlycoNet’s research activities.

“We are very excited to have Chantelle, Samy, and Lisa join the Network,” says Dr. Todd Lowary, Scientific Director at GlycoNet. “They each approach glycomics research through a unique lens, which will help the Network increase its impact, as it continues to strive to find concrete solutions to current and future health needs of Canadians. I look forward to seeing our new Network Investigators collaborate with colleagues to advance glycomics translational research.”

Capicciotti (@CCapicciotti), an Assistant Professor and Queen’s National Scholar at Queen’s University, works at the intersection of organic chemistry, biochemistry and cell biology. Her team combines chemo-enzymatic glycan synthesis with intricate molecular tools to engineer cell surfaces with defined glycan structures. These engineered cell surfaces can be used to elucidate how certain glycan-protein interactions stimulate biological functions. Capicciotti and her team are also developing glycan-based tools for identifying disease biomarkers, imaging techniques, and cell-based therapies with applications for cancer and stem-cell therapies.

Cecioni (@SCecioni), an Assistant Professor at l’Université de Montréal, bridges chemistry and glycobiology to study the roles of glycan-processing enzymes and glycan-binding proteins in health and disease; specifically, his team is designing chemical probes/reporters to monitor enzyme activities and to characterize binding events in cells. He also focuses on developing synthetic glycomimetics to perturb glycan-protein interactions that play a role in the pathophysiology of many diseases such as cancer but also metabolic and neurodegenerative diseases.

Willis (@DrLisaWillis), an Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta, leverages glycobiology, microbiology, and immunology to address fundamental questions regarding the pivotal roles of glycans in human immune systems. Specifically, she is investigating how glycans are involved in population-specific autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, scleroderma, and rheumatoid arthritis. Her research group also studies the function of bacterial protein glycosylation and its influence on cellular homeostasis and environmental sensing in the microbiome.

The three new investigators are no strangers to GlycoNet, having collaborated with Network members on multidisciplinary projects. Capicciotti worked with Dr. Robert Ben during her doctoral studies and collaborated with Dr. Jason Acker on designing carbohydrate-based cryoprotectants to preserve cells at subzero temperatures. She then completed postdoctoral studies with Dr. Geert-Jan Boons at the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, University of Georgia, prior to establishing her own research group at Queen’s University in July 2018. “During my doctoral work, I became fascinated by the complexity of carbohydrates, their importance in health and disease, and how they can be used for various applications. From this interest, I pursued further studies in complex glycan synthesis and glycobiology, while maintaining a focus on interdisciplinary research at the interface of chemistry and biology. As a new Network Investigator, I am looking forward to integrating into and collaborating with the Canadian glycoscience community.” 

Both Cecioni and Willis are former GlycoNet trainees who led several projects since joining the Network. During his postdoctoral years with Dr. David Vocadlo at Simon Fraser University, Cecioni worked on designing chemical probes to study glycan-processing enzymes that are therapeutic targets for rare lysosomal diseases and for neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. In February 2019, he established his own research group at l’Université de Montréal. “The extraordinary support that I have received from my mentors and the scientific community has been instrumental in my desire to start my independent career,” says Cecioni. “In addition to the exciting science that is supported through GlycoNet, the Network brings diverse people together and fosters a sense of belonging to the Canadian community of glycoscientists. I think this is quite important, especially for young scientists such as trainees and starting professors.”

Willis was a trainee with GlycoNet from 2015 to early 2019. During her time as a postdoctoral research fellow with Dr. Mark Nitz at the University of Toronto, Willis developed novel methods for detecting and quantifying polysialic acid and polysialylated proteins in complex mixtures. “It’s been amazing for introducing me to a community of trainees, professors, and other scientists,” says Willis. “Going forward, I will have a network of people that I can call on to help with my research and to collaborate with.” In her new lab, Willis is applying the tools she developed to study the role of polysialic acid in cancer and autoimmune diseases. “My research will bridge the fields of glycomics and immunology to transform our understanding of how the human immune system functions in health and disease,” she says.

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