By Wendy Sarubbi | August 22, 2011 11:20 am

Alejandra Petrilli, a Ph.D. candidate at the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, is the winner of a $60,000 “Young Investigator Award” from the Children’s Tumor Foundation. The grant will help Alejandra research Neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2), a disease that can leave children and young adults deaf, partially paralyzed or brain damaged.

Alejandra works with Dr. Cristina Fernandez-Valle, associate professor at the Burnett school, whose efforts to fight the disease extend from the lab to her help in establishing two nationally affiliated clinics in Florida that bring together physicians with the best expertise on NF2.

Neurofibromatosis is a complex of related tumor disorders that affect the nervous system and include NF1, NF2 and Schwannomatosis. Dr. Fernandez-Valle’s lab specializes in NF2, which affects one in every 20,000 people and is usually diagnosed when patients are 17 to 22 years old and start suffering hearing loss. Mutations in the NF2 gene can cause tumors in the hearing and balance nerve in the brain. Although the tumors are benign, they can lead to deafness and facial paralysis, and surgically removing them, the only treatment today, can cause more damage.

Dr. Fernandez-Valle’s research is looking for specific protein molecules that can be targeted to treat or slow the growth of NF2 tumors.

Most Young Investigator Awards go to post-doctoral fellows so Alejandra is one of the few graduate students to win the honor. “She’s great,” Dr. Fernandez-Valle said of her student. “She is a scientist at heart.”

Alejandra was a scientist in Argentina before taking time off to have two sons, ages 17 and 18. She is motivated by the fact that NF2 is usually diagnosed when patients, like her children, are in their late teens and early adulthood – a time they hope to establish their independence.

“I have always loved science,” she said. “It’s like solving a puzzle. Dr. Fernandez-Valle is at the turning point in finding treatments for this disease. I am the lucky one at the right place at the right time. Here is my chance to help.”

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