An interview published in Ellipse, the monthly magazine of the PRBB.
Andrea Cerutti is a 44-year old Italian ICREA research professor who joined the IMIM in 2010, after moving from Padua to New York. Here he leads the B-cell laboratory in parallel with his former lab at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. As an immunologist he aims to understand the basic principles underlying B-cell functions leading to the diversification of antibodies.
Why did you come to Spain?
After 14 years in the USA coming to Spain was not only a scientific, but also a very personal decision. I always felt like a European and wanted to come back. My timing might not have been the best, since I was doing quite well in the USA, while here it is difficult to get funding for our research.
What do the IMIM and the PRBB offer you?
Here we have a unique collaboration with the Hospital del Mar, allowing us access to precious human tissue samples. I also appreciate the scientific surroundings here at the PRBB which offer the possibility of interacting with scientists from many different disciplines.
Do you still do clinical work?
At some point in my career I had to make a decision and I opted for research. In order to work as a physician in the USA, I would have been forced to redo my specialist medical training, which would have taken far too long. I also wanted to continue doing competitive research, and combining work in the clinic and the lab is very difficult.
What has been your major discovery?
Our most important finding was the identification of the antibody-inducing function of the cytokines BAFF and APRIL, which are produced by cells of the innate immune system. This system was thought to be broad and unspecific, but we proved otherwise. BAFF and APRIL are molecules which activate B-cells, resulting in a switch of antibody subclass. This process was thought to happen exclusively in the much slower but more specific adaptive immune system via the interaction of B cells with T-cells. We have recently published the mechanism that explains how the bridging of the innate and adaptive immune systems takes place.
What would be your ideal goal in science?
It would be nice to understand the real nature of B-cell diversity: where they come from; why they have specific characteristics and how they react in different situations. It is known that the source of B-cells is the bone marrow and that some of these naïve precursors are already diverse. However we do not yet understand how and why some B cells produce one specific type of antibody class rather than another.
It would also be fantastic to find a way to develop prophylactic vaccines capable of providing broadly neutralising antibodies against HIV or influenza. Following this idea, one could imagine the creation of a “superantibody” capable of blocking virtually any strain of these continuously changing viruses. However, in order to achieve these goals we must first understand how specific subsets of B-cells work.