Yassine Sassi decided as a boy growing up in Tunisia that he wanted to be a scientist. He isn’t sure why. There were no scientists among his family, no friends with the same ambition.

But at 18 he left home for France to study biochemistry.

Two decades later, he’s on the leading edge of research into deadly pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases. Sassi will join the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC as an assistant professor, where he will continue his research into pulmonary hypertension and pulmonary fibrosis. Current treatments for the diseases only slow their progression.

“There has been intense research into these diseases in the last 20 years, but they still have high morbidity and high mortality,” said Sassi, who will also be a faculty member in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology. “So new directions and therapies to improve understanding and treatment of these two diseases are desperately needed.”

His research focus at the institute will be on identifying those new therapies. Sassi investigates the role of genetic material molecules, called microRNAs, in pulmonary hypertension – high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs and heart – and pulmonary fibrosis, a thickening of lung tissue that hinders breathing and distribution of oxygen through the body. He also studies heart failure and the abnormal enlargement of the heart.

MicroRNAs are tiny but potent molecules. They are composed of short stretches of non-coding RNA that bind to messenger RNA in a cell’s cytoplasm, Sassi said. This process provides an additional opportunity for a cell to regulate the outcome of gene expression downstream of the initial transcription process where DNA is read. Sassi developed a method of detecting the small molecules, and, combining animal models and human lung cells, found that blocking certain types of microRNAs prevented pulmonary hypertension. He hypothesizes that better understanding of the role of microRNAs in that disease and others could provide the basis of long-sought therapies.

Among his recent publications, Sassi co-authored a study published in Cardiovascular Research in 2019 that identified a hidden pathway between cells in the lungs through which a molecule attempts to protect the heart from damage due to pulmonary hypertension.

He was part of a team that developed a means of delivering genes to heart cells that could reduce the damage caused after a heart attack. The system was described in a 2020 article in Circulation. He also recently co-authored a study published in Circulation in June that unveiled the protective role of a transcriptional regulator in pulmonary hypertension.

Sassi earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry, a Master of Science degree in clinical pharmacology, and a doctorate in cardiovascular physiology at the Pierre et Marie Cure University in Paris. He was subsequently a postdoctoral fellow at the Technical University Munich’s Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology.

He joins Virginia Tech from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, where he was an assistant professor of cardiology.

Sassi’s awards and honors include several from the American Heart Association, including a Transformational Project Award in 2022, an Innovative Project Award in 2018, and a Career Development Award in 2017.

He was drawn to the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute by the cooperative spirit he found there.

“I saw there was a lot going on between the different labs, not just in the Center for Vascular and Heart Research, but with other disciplines,” Sassi said. “Everyone’s collaborating, and I like this.”

Written by Matt Chittum

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