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Valeria Cavalli, PhD

Valeria Cavalli, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology, is being honored for her outstanding investigations on the regulation of nerve cell axon repair, work that may fuel development of improved treatments for nerve injuries.

Cavalli’s work aims to understand the complex cascade of cellular events responsible for repairing damaged axons — the branches of nerve cells that carry signals to other nerve cells — and to identify therapeutic targets. Although still early in her career, Cavalli has been extremely prolific and has already published several key discoveries in major international journals.

Studying peripheral nerve cells, those outside the brain and spinal cord, Cavalli and colleagues have identified several key molecular players and their roles in announcing injury, initiating a response and carrying out repair. Among them are mammalian Target of Rapamycin (mTOR), JNK-interacting protein, JIP3 and the gene regulator HDAC5. In her most recent work, published in Cell, she and colleagues found that when axons are severed, HDAC5 is released and travels to the site of injury to orchestrate axon regeneration. When she studied injury to central nervous system cells — those of the brain and spinal cord — she found that HDAC5 does not leave the cell body, a step necessary for axon regeneration. The finding may explain why injuries to these cells are generally permanent and points to HDAC5 as a possible therapeutic target. Cavalli is currently studying whether HDAC5 or other cellular players can be used to restore sensory function in nerve grafts and improve regeneration in central nervous system cells.

Cavalli earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Geneva in 1991, 1992 and 2000, respectively. She continued with postdoctoral training at the University of California, San Diego, and then joined the Washington University faculty in 2006.

Published: 01/27/2014