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Celebrating PRIDE Month With Carlo Castruccio Castracani, Featured Research Staff Member for June
Editor’s Note: For PRIDE Month, our Featured Research Staff member for June is Carlo Castruccio Castracani, PharmD, PhD. Dr. Castruccio Castracani is a research associate in the lab of Stefano Rivella, PhD. A native of Italy, he earned his PharmD in 2016 and his PhD in Neurosciences in 2019 from the University of Catania. In this Q&A, Dr. Castruccio Castracani discusses his dedication to the LGBTQ+ community, his research and experiences at CHOP, and his interests outside of the lab. As an Italian, he’s passionate about food!
What message do you hope people take away from Pride Month?
Pride Month is the most important moment of the year for the LGBTQ+ community, when we celebrate our past and the people who allowed us to be here today. At the same time, we address the social issues that our community faces every day, to improve our society. Pride Month is a celebration open to everybody: the LGBTQ+ community is an open and safe space, even for allies – heterosexual and/or cisgender people who try to make the world a better place for people in the LGBTQ+ community.
In this light, I hope people can better understand that each action, each bill, each attack to the LGBTQ+ community is an issue for everybody. We see this every day, especially toward transgender people and kids. For example, we are witnessing the ban of books from libraries and schools, or bills like the “Don’t Say Gay” in Florida, which claims to protect kids because it is inappropriate. Is it inappropriate to learn about culture? For people to express themselves and what they are? To give tools to kids and youths to understand better themselves and avoid the pain and the issues we faced in the past? To provide help to parents and families about having a trans kid? To support same-sex parents in raising their kids without fear and out of danger? To show that a better world, made of diversity, respect and equity is possible? To show that we all have equal rights?
During this Pride Month, I would like people to consider these questions and reflect on how we can all help to build a better society against any kind of discrimination. I also hope that more people will discover themselves as allies and decide to join the community and support it.
What are some research projects you are currently working on, and why are they important?
I work on developing murine models of congenital sideroblastic anemias (CSAs) and gene therapy applications to cure them. CSAs are a rare and diverse class of inherited disorders that result in altered mitochondrial iron metabolism. I focus my research on the most common form of X-linked sideroblastic anemia (XLSA), which results from mutations in the ALAS2 gene and inhibits normal heme biosynthesis. Insufficient heme biosynthesis leads to hypoxia, continual stimulation of erythropoiesis, and iron-overload. The prevalence of XLSA is unknown, but there are an estimated 200 cases with fewer than 100 unrelated probands. Clinically XLSA is characterized by anemia, and in some cases, reticulocytopenia, ineffective erythropoiesis, and secondary iron-overload. Treatment strategies for patients include supportive therapies, specifically vitamin B6 and iron chelators. However, over time patients become non-responsive. Gene therapy offers a more long-term treatment strategy for patients with CSA.
What are some of the most salient experiences you’ve had at CHOP, research or otherwise?
On the research side, I can define my entire journey here at CHOP as a salient experience.
I grew a lot as person and as scientist, pushing my boundaries and fighting my fears, especially thanks to my PI.
At the same time, I joined CHOP right before the beginning of the pandemic in the United States, and it was especially difficult after relocating from Italy, far from my family and loved ones. But one salient experience was during the vaccination campaign for the teachers of the District of Philadelphia, where I volunteered as a greeter. One teacher came to me, pointing to one of the many LGBTQ+ buttons I have on my rainbow lanyard, and she said, ‘Here at CHOP, you make miracles with kids, but you also show that everything is possible, even being openly gay and living your professional life with no fear.’ This was an amazing moment and I truly believe in what that teacher said to me.
During the peak of the pandemic, CHOP also gave me the opportunity to volunteer and share knowledge in different areas and connect with many co-workers in different work-related fields.
One of the most amazing things I experienced is becoming a member of PRIDE – the LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group (ERG) – and eventually becoming a Workforce Development and Recruiting Officer. I was isolated from family and friends due to COVID-19, and the ERG helped me to find a new community where support and help are always available. I eventually became an officer because I wanted to help my co-workers find the same care and help I received when I joined CHOP as a LGBTQ+ person.
Aside from research, what do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
When I came out (from my closet) at age 17, I saw the anxiety and fear growing in my mother’s eyes: I knew she was worried about her kid and my future as a gay man. I know she asked herself questions like, ‘Will this world accept him for what he is, and not for who he might love? How my kid can be recognized as a professional in this world? Will he be harassed or bothered by others, and will he be able to stand up for himself? Will he be in danger or injured, mentally or physically?’
What I am today is my biggest accomplishment: a proud openly gay man, and an immigrant, who works in a great enterprise under the guidance of a great mentor and with an amazing team, where everybody recognizes and values me as a person and as a professional.
I grew up a gay kid in Sicily among discrimination and bullies at school, but I kept my chin up. I was the first openly gay student representative in the School of Pharmacy of my alma mater, and I graduated from that program, as well as from my PhD program, with the respect of my fellow colleagues and professors. I demonstrated, and I still demonstrate every day, that being gay is perfectly normal and no one has the right to tell me what I am supposed to be or that what I am is not right.
What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
My great passion is food: I am Italian! Food for me is not just the act of eating. Food is a mix of culture, relax, tradition, and friendship. I still try to reproduce my grandma’s recipes with mixed results; but these actions and smells bring me back to my past, and they make me feel home.
I am an extrovert, and I enjoy spending quality time with friends and my chosen family here in Philadelphia. Arts and culture always get my attention, so I try to go to a new art collection or to a new exhibition at the Franklin Museum as much as possible.
When I want to spend some time alone, I like reading thriller and detective stories with a good cup of coffee or tea, and I also enjoy some ‘nerd time’ with videogames or TV series. During the summer, I need to reconnect with my Sicilian origins, and I try to go to the beach as much as possible: The sun and the ocean give me energy and serenity.