Westborough infectious disease expert uses his skills for the good of others

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By Peg Lopata, Contributing Writer

Christopher Sassetti
Photo/submitted

Westborough – Say the words “infectious diseases” and most will cringe. Others, such as Christopher Sassetti, 52, find them fascinating. As director of the Sassetti Lab, Department of Microbiology and Physiological Systems, at University of Massachusetts Medical School, his specialties are infectious diseases – specifically, tuberculosis and immunology.  

“Tuberculosis is a uniquely terrible infection,” Sassetti explained. “Despite the availability of antibiotics and massive control efforts, the disease still kills millions. My work focuses on how tuberculosis can persist despite both our immune response and antibiotic therapy. The fact that there is such a great need to understand this infection makes my work very satisfying.”  

Sassetti is driven to help others, whether in the lab, classroom or as a volunteer for the Special Olympics Unified sports program, his favorite volunteering gig.  

“It brings out the best in everyone,” said Sassetti.  

He’s also vice president of the Westborough Community Land Trust.  

“The Land Trust is a great organization,” he said. “My family has always loved the outdoors and it seemed natural to help preserve and maintain open spaces in town.”

The natural world has interested Sassetti since he was young. He majored in biology at Santa Clara University in California. 

“I always loved biology, particularly the forms of life that seemed unusual to me. I had a chance to work in a lab that studied really bizarre tropical parasites. That experience got me hooked on infectious diseases,” said Sassetti.  “I can’t imagine a job that’s more fun. We get to solve puzzles all day. I can dream up a new idea during my morning shower and try it out the same day.”  

Not surprisingly, Sassetti is extra busy during this pandemic and his experience with dangerous and highly contagious diseases is being put to good use.  

“As we have a lot of experience working with easily transmissible diseases, we’re doing our best to help our colleagues safely start new COVID research programs,” he explained. “I love working with a community of colleagues that all share the same goal. Every day I get to interact with a really interesting group of students, fellows and colleagues from all over the world. Seeing a new idea spread through this group and develop into insight that moves the field forward is really gratifying.”  

Sassetti is heartened by what the pandemic has brought out in people and is hopeful.  

“I am struck by how generously my neighbors and community have put their lives on hold to protect each other,” he said. “I am also impressed with the creative solutions we’ve all come up with to continue living our lives – from telecommuting and distance learning to drive-by birthday parties.”

He is confident that all of the research and clinical trials being conducted will provide answers about the virus soon.

“We’ve only known about this virus for a few months,” he noted. “With a bit more understanding, I’m optimistic that we’ll keep getting better at treating this disease. Patient outcomes have already been improving through experience. Though vaccine development is typically a decade-long process, I’m optimistic the combination of new technologies and testing strategies that are being applied to a COVID-19 vaccine could greatly accelerate this timeline.”   

Though Sassetti admitted that the pandemic “highlighted how tenuous our healthcare and economic systems are,” one cannot but help be infected by his optimism. Whether it’s weekends spent shoring up the old house he bought in Westborough, his work with the Special Olympics, protecting open spaces, or coming up with new ways to combat tuberculosis, one gets the sense Sassetti will continue to use his skills for the good of others.