In his first year as a PhD student in biology, Fausto Capelluto is already a rising star. As a 19-year-old sophomore at Northeastern, he developed a new process that will help researchers study the impacts of transplanted mitochondria, which hold the key to a host of new treatments for cancer, heart disease, aging, infertility, and more. Today, Capelluto is on the verge of publishing his findings while he continues his mitochondria-based research in the Woods Laboratory at Northeastern.
Mitochondria—widely known as the powerhouses of the cell—also determine how cells behave and communicate. As cells age or are attacked by disease, mitochondria begin to dysfunction in ways that damage the cell process. Learning to transplant healthy mitochondria into afflicted cells has the potential to open the door to a new field of therapeutic research. Capelluto’s project builds upon the work of previous researchers who developed a way to eliminate cell mitochondria by inducing the protein Parkin, which signals the cell to digest existing mitochondria. Capelluto saw an opportunity to use this process to transplant healthy mitochondria into the cell. The problem was that the Parkin remained active and could attack the new mitochondria. Capelluto solved that problem by developing a Parkin system that will destroy the damaged mitochondria, then fade out before new ones are transplanted. “In the field of mitochondria research, it doesn’t get any more cutting-edge than this,” said professor Dori Woods, leader of the Woods Laboratory.
Capelluto’s discovery was made possible by a flow cyclometer Woods developed along with her longtime collaborator, Professor Jonathan Tilly. The device can separate biological material at the nanoparticle level, thus making it possible to isolate individual mitochondria. As a PhD student, Capelluto is now using these two developments to study how cells respond to transplanted mitochondria: Do the foreign mitochondria corrupt the cell function, or does the cell adapt the new mitochondria to resume the cell’s normal function? If it is the latter, the implications for healthcare are enormous. “If we can direct the way the mitochondria function, it will affect every facet of healthcare,” says Woods. “This is the holy grail in cell biology.”
Capelluto met Woods while she was conducting a tour of her lab for students in the Summer Bridge Program for students from underrepresented communities. “My eyes were wide open,” Capelluto recalls. “I’d never seen such abundant resources in such a pristine environment.”
Woods, in turn, was so impressed by Capelluto’s curiosity and knowledge as an incoming freshman, that she hired him to work in her lab on the first day of school. She later convinced him to become the first biology student in Northeastern’s accelerated BS/PhD program. He is also a recipient of the STARS Fellowship, a program funded by the National Science Foundation for exceptionally well-qualified STEM students from historically underrepresented backgrounds.
Born in Argentina, Capelluto moved from Buenos Aires to Miami at age 9. His parents made the move to provide their children with better educational opportunities and a safer environment. He planned to go into business like his father and grandfather before him, until he discovered his true passion while taking a research biology course as a freshman in high school. Two years later, he sent emails to 40 research professors in Boston and Miami asking for a position in their laboratories. He landed a position in a Harvard lab, and during his senior year decided to attend Northeastern based on its research prestige and dedication to experiential learning.