Convergence Relay 4 | Roberto Narcisi 

In Convergence Relay episode four, we speak with Roberto Narcisi. He is a stem cell researcher within the Flagship i-Cell. ‘Let’s get amazed by the beauty of nature and understand how it’s working, together.’ 

What is the goal of your Flagship project? 

‘We want to understand and capture the genetic diversity among individuals so that in the distant future, we can say: ‘Based on this information in your DNA, you have an x chance of getting this disease and a y chance that these drugs will work for you.’ 

How will you approach this? 

‘One of the diseases we are looking at is osteoarthritis. The RIVM has predicted that by 2040, two million people in the Netherlands will suffer from osteoarthritis. But some get the disease when they are 40 years old, some when they are 80. Some only have it in one joint, and others in more. Where do these differences come from? And why do certain drugs work for some people and not for others? 

To answer those questions, we want to develop cellular models that can decipher which codes in your DNA cause these differences. This way, we can predict for each individual how the disease may progress and which drugs are most likely to work. Additionally, we can use the cellular models to research other genetic diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.’

What is the focus of your research within the Flagship? 

‘I am involved as a stem cell researcher. Stem cells are special cells able to ‘transform’ themselves (differentiate) into another cell, such as a bone, brain, or cardiac cell. Nowadays, technology allows us to generate stem cells in the laboratory starting from potentially any cell of a given person.  

For example, by using a small skin biopsy or a drop of blood, we can generate a large number of stem cells from different individuals in the laboratory for research. Once generated, the stem cells from hundreds of different individuals can be differentiated into the cells of interest to investigate how external stimuli are influencing the cell behaviour, a disease progression or even test drugs.’

‘For this Flagship, I’m working with biologists, computer scientists, ethicists, and valorisation professionals. Every step we take is evaluated in terms of ethics, but we also conduct a cost-benefit analysis and look at the opportunities for valorisation. As a ‘nerdy’ scientist, you might not typically think much about that. But if you want to make a real impact, it’s important that these aspects are considered early on in the process.’ 

You’ve also taken on the role of Flagship project manager. 

‘The role is new to me, but I like it a lot. In a co-creation like this, you must acknowledge and accept diversity. Communication is probably the biggest challenge here. I want everyone to feel that they are part of this project, that they play an important role, and that they contribute their specific expertise. And then, let’s get amazed by the beauty of nature and understand how it’s working together.’  

On Instagram, Roberto is also working on his communication. What started as a Corona project has now grown into an account with 7,000 followers, of which 80% are students. With funny videos, he shows the challenges of being a scientist. You can find him on Instagram as roberto_narcisi__phd.

Roberto passes the Convergence Relay on to Rintje Agricola.