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Dr. Stavros Lomvardas on His Research on the Sense of Smell

NEW YORK – An old adage has it that “the nose knows.” Columbia University’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute Principal Investigator and Herbert and Florence Irving Professor, Stavros Lomvardas, PhD, gives this saying new meaning, opening up avenues toward promoting better health.

Our senses connect us to the outside world and also provide windows into better understanding of how our brains and bodies function. Olfaction, the sense of smell, is no exception. Loss of the ability to smell is often an early symptom of a health problem, from the common cold to novel viruses and devastating neurodegenerative diseases. Long of interest to researchers and clinicians, the connection between smell and health has gained new immediacy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the online event via Zoom titled Why the Nose Knows on October 19, Rui Costa, DVM, PhD, Director and CEO of the Zuckerman Institute, spoke with Dr. Lomvardas in this scientific spotlight about his research on the molecular basis of smell, and his groundbreaking work that is tracing the origins of neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, to defects in our olfactory system. Inspired by his transformative experience as a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Nobel laureate and Zuckerman Institute co-director, Richard Axel, MD, Dr. Lomvardas is also a dedicated mentor, supporting innovative ideas generated by the fellows who work alongside him every day.

Greek-born Lomvardas, from a family of dentists in the homeland, began his journey at Columbia as a postdoctoral researcher where he developed an interest in how gene regulation operates in the olfactory system. Now as a Principal Investigator with his own lab, Dr. Lomvardas works to understand why olfactory neurons are the canary in the coal mine for neurodegenerative disorders, and he supports innovative ideas generated by the fellows who work alongside him every day.

Inspired by his experience in Dr. Axel’s lab, Dr. Lomvardas challenges early career scientists to learn that the most important thing they can do is to ask ambitious questions and to embrace the winding path towards discovery: “Just as Richard once challenged me to take risks and ask the kinds of fundamental questions that could break the field open in new and unexpected ways, I work hard to create an environment where my students and postdoctoral fellows feel empowered to embark on big quests that can change the world.”

“How can it be that there are 1,000 olfactory receptor genes in any given neuron, but only one gets expressed?” said Dr. Lomvardas on the Zuckerman Institute website. “This, to me, is incredible.”

The implications of Dr. Lomvardas’ research go far beyond whether you enjoy your pot roast dinner or pinch your nose when taking out the trash.

“When we understand how diversity works with olfactory receptor neurons, it affects not just our understanding of the senses, but how it shapes human behavior and development as a whole,” he said.

“It would explain the puzzling observation that the first clinical manifestation and most accurate prediction for the future onset of Alzheimer’s and various forms of dementia is the loss of ability to smell,” he notes. Dr. Lomvardas hopes to pursue this research further in the future.

Such investigations are a long way from Dr. Lomvardas’ roots back in Greece, where his brother, father, and grandfather are all dentists. The family assumed Dr. Lomvardas would become one, too, despite his lifelong passion for science. It wasn’t until he won the 2014 Vilcek award — granted to “foreign-born scientists who have made outstanding contributions to society in the United States” — that his parents, who made the journey to the U.S. for the occasion, acknowledged that root canals were probably not in their son’s future after all. “For me, this research is the most exciting thing,” Dr. Lomvardas said.

More information is available online: https://zuckermaninstitute.columbia.edu/stavros-lomvardas-phd.

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