Rocking It Up:
An Interview with Flaviano Giorgini
Highlight from the: EHDN Newsletter_March2023_Issue48
|Alongside a high-flying rock career, Flaviano (Flav) Giorgini, Professor of Neurogenetics at the University of Leicester in the UK, has been driving forward our understanding of the biological underpinnings of HD for many years. We met with Flav to hear more about his diverse interests and being a member of the HD community.
How did you get involved in HD research?
I completed my PhD studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, and at this time, I was focused on fundamental biological studies. These weren’t disease-related but when I finished my PhD, I was keen to do more applied, disease-related research that would be more directly beneficial to people. And as it happened, there was a new principal investigator in the department next door, and he had just started a laboratory looking at the role of protein misfolding in HD and using model systems to do this. This was probably in 2003 and I was immediately excited – as a trained geneticist, I saw this would be a great opportunity to apply my knowledge to better understanding rare diseases.
‘When I first came into this community, I found it to be a really amazing and supportive place and I think this is still the case.’
At this time, a lot was going on in terms of trying to understand protein misfolding in the cells of the brain as a cause of neurodegenerative disease and also the potential impact of genes in modifying the toxicity of mutant huntingtin. This was, of course, before any of the genome-wide association studies took place but the work was based on the similar principle that there may be genes that we can target to somehow modify the progression of the disease. In 2006, I came to the University of Leicester in the UK – which means I have been here for 17 years! The EHDN had started just a few years before and the Europe-wide network that emerged in providing structure and support for the HD community, comprising clinicians, researchers and HD families, has been invaluable. I began by starting my own research group and trying to identify interesting genes that may be relevant in causing HD and may also be potential therapeutic targets. This has mainly involved laboratory work in yeast and mammalian cells, and most recently, work in fruit flies which we’ve found to be a really good system for looking at HD.
What does it feel like to be a longstanding part of the HD community?
When I first came into this community, I found it to be a really amazing and supportive place and I think this is still the case. While still relatively small, people in the HD community tend to know each other (or know of each other, at the very least). This makes for a really supportive environment. I think there’s always been a huge interest in supporting early-career researchers, from different backgrounds and different genders. The main focus is on working together, talking together, and sharing data. I joined this community because I wanted to work in disease, and when I got to know the community more, I was thrilled to be part of it.
What sort of research are you currently involved in?
My research ‘self’ is still focused on HD although these days, we do some other things as well. Protein misfolding-based neurodegeneration remains a core interest but over the years we’ve been doing quite a bit of work with Parkinson’s disease models and more recently, we’ve been doing work related to the Tau protein, which is very much linked to Alzheimer’s disease but also, Tau pathologies are associated with a lot of neurodegenerative disorders more generally. We’ve also been working on schizophrenia. Some of the metabolites that we’re interested in in the context of neurodegenerative disease look like they may also play a role in schizophrenia and some other related disorders.
And in this time, you also built up a reputation in punk rock! Tell us more…
I’ve been in punk rock bands since 1984, so a long time – gosh, getting on almost 40 years! I went through various different bands, but in the mid-1990s, my brother and I formed a band called Squirtgun. I would call this melodic punk, some people would call it pop punk, similar to Green Day or Blink 182 but more melodic. We signed to a pretty well-known independent label called Lookout! Records which is also where Green Day got their start and in the mid-1990s, we did a fair amount of touring, released a few albums, had videos on MTV, songs on movie soundtracks… and that kind of thing. I think we did pretty well for an independent band! I took a break between being an undergraduate and PhD student to focus on music. Later, the band kept going and I remained a non-touring member but I’d jump in occasionally. In the later 1990s, it was more for fun than work and although we never got huge, we worked with a lot of well-known people. Blink 182, for example, opened for us, as did a band called Anti-Flag, an American punk band. In January this year, Anti-Flag released a new album which made the top ten in Germany!
‘I think there’s always been a huge interest in supporting early-career researchers, from different backgrounds and different genders. The main focus is on working together, talking together, and sharing data.’
How does music fit into your life now?
I’ve always kept music as part of my life. I’ve done a few solo albums that were mainly acoustic guitar with a folky feel and I’ve always kept a bit of the melodic punk thing going as well. Even now, I’m still doing music. Since the pandemic, I’ve run a music project called the Phase Problem and we record all our work virtually. I do the songwriting and singing and playing the guitar but have joined up with other band members from around the UK for the recordings.
For me, music provides a mindfulness sort of relaxation. I have my guitar here in my office and I can jam along if I need a break. When I pick up the guitar, I get lost in music, it clears my mind of everything else and it recharges me. I think it’s really important because creativity in science comes from being able to relax your mind and let yourself think. I feel one of the biggest problems in society right now is that we don’t have time to actually think because we are constantly bombarded with everything – like email. We need time to reflect on things if we are to learn and move forward.