Valeria Cavalli, PhD

Robert E. and Louise F. Dunn Professor of Biomedical Research and Professor of Neuroscience

Dr. Cavalli’s work aims to understand the complex cascade of cellular and molecular events responsible for repairing damaged axons — the branches of nerve cells that carry signals to other nerve cells — and to identify therapeutic targets to improve neuronal recovery following axon injury.

Studying peripheral nerve cells, those outside the brain and spinal cord, Dr. Cavalli and her 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 regulators HDAC5 and HIF-1alpha. Dr. Cavalli’s team is currently studying whether these cellular players can be used to restore sensory function after spinal cord or optic nerve injury.

Recently Dr. Cavalli and her team turned their attention to possibility that the non-neuronal cells surrounding sensory neuron cell help neurons heal. They discovered that the satellite glial cells that completely surround the neuronal soma contribute to orchestrate nerve repair. They are now testing the hypothesis that a coordinated response in multiple cell types orchestrates axon regeneration.

Dr. Cavalli earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Geneva, Switzerland in 1991, 1992 and 2000, respectively. During her graduate work in the lab of Dr. Jean Gruenberg in the department of Biochemistry at the University of Geneva, Dr. Cavalli studied the signaling mechanisms regulating membrane trafficking in cells. She continued with postdoctoral training at the University of California, San Diego. There she joined the lab of Dr. Larry Goldstein and studied how vesicular transport impacts signaling along peripheral nerves, and, vice versa, how signaling impacts vesicular transport, essential features for the establishment and maintenance of peripheral nerves. Indeed, peripheral sensory neurons and motor neurons possess axons that extend several centimeters in rodents and a meter or more in large mammals. In her initial studies, she focused on retrograde injury signaling, or how information about an injury is conveyed from the distantly located lesion site in the axon back to the cell soma. She received a post-doctoral fellowship from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation to continue her studies on injury signaling. This fellowship was influential in how Dr. Cavalli pursued her particular field: she was seized by the curiosity and motivation to solve the puzzle of nerve injury and repair. She then joined the Washington University faculty in 2006 as an Assistant Professor and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2014, and Professor of Neuroscience in 2019. She was named the Robert E. and Louis F. Dunn Professor of Biomedical Research in 2021.

Honors and Awards

  • 2001 Swiss National Science Foundation – post-doctoral research fellowship
  • 2002 Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation – postdoctoral fellowship
  • 2003 International Campaign for Cures of Spinal Cord Injury Paralysis, Outstanding Young Investigator Award 
  • 2004 CMM Department Retreat 2004, UCSD Excellence Award for Outstanding Accomplishment in Research
  • 2005 Keystone Symposia Scholarship
  • 2014 Distinguished Investigator Award, Washington University School of Medicine
  • 2017 Visiting Faculty Program Fellowship, Weizmann Institute of Science
  • 2019 Jack Griffin Plenary Lecture, Peripheral Nerve Society (PNS) Annual meeting
  • 2019 Stein Innovation Award from Research to Prevent Blindness Foundation
  • 2021 Research Program Award (R35)
  • 2021 Named the Robert E. and Louis F. Dunn Professor of Biomedical Research