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Oxford-Harrington Rare Disease Scholar Award
New Therapeutic Targets for CVD Within the Area of Inflammatory Signaling
2015 Oxford-Harrington Scholar
Ask Oxford-Harrington Scholar Claudia Monaco, MD, PhD, FESC, how she achieves work-life balance while juggling her marriage to a fellow scientist, the demands of their two-year old son and her physician-scientist career, and she laughs. “I don't even know what that is,” she responds. Dedicated to her family, her research and her patients, she describes her life as “complicated and rewarding.”
Born in Italy and educated in Rome, Dr. Monaco credits an old-time physician and his wooden stethoscope who treated her during her childhood as her inspiration for becoming a doctor. Although she pursued classical studies in college, her love for medicine and intellectual curiosity won out, and she enrolled in medical school instead of pursuing a career as a classics scholar.
Her captivation with atherosclerosis began in Rome during her fellowship training in cardiology under the tutelage of Attilio Maseri, PhD. “He inspired me to be inquisitive about the disease and not just accept current thinking,” Dr. Monaco says. She participated in the first studies of the systemic inflammatory response triggered by the immune system in patients with certain types of heart disease.
In 1998, Dr. Monaco left behind her native country's sunshine and renowned cuisine for the opportunity to pursue intensive atherosclerosis research in London. The relocation posed some daunting personal challenges, but Dr. Monaco was eager to join the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology. “There were no equivalent positions in Rome,” she explains. “I wanted the intellectual freedom to pursue my own projects.”
In London, she found a mentor in Marc Feldman, PhD, whom she credits with directing her toward translational research. “He would ask what you surmise from your data that could be therapeutic,” Dr. Monaco recalls. “He directed my curiosity in the right direction.”
She recently has relocated again, moving with the Kennedy Institute from London to Oxford where she is Professor of Cardiovascular Inflammation. Her long quest to translate her research into patient care finally is coming to fruition. Dr. Monaco and her team have shown that certain immune receptors increase inflammation in atherosclerosis, causing blood vessel damage, while others are protective.
“We believe there is a repair pathway for the blood vessels that we could selectively activate,” she explains. With assistance from Harrington Discovery Institute experts, she has identified a small molecule that can be modified to target that pathway.
Although foregoing clinical practice would free up more time to advance her research, Dr. Monaco is reluctant to give up her patients. “There is something about treating patients and seeing them get better that is rewarding,” she notes.
“Sometimes you have a ‘eureka' moment when you discover something new, and you are the only one who knows about it. Once you experience that feeling, you cannot wait until your next discovery to feel it again.”