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Researching the cure and running for the cause: Dr Valeria Di Leo takes on the Great North Run

This year, Dr Valeria Di Leo is sprinting out of her comfort zone and taking part in the Great North Run 2023. Running for a cause that’s close to her heart, Valeria opens up about the incredible women who inspired her to take on this challenge – and to become a scientist researching future cures for neuromuscular diseases.

I first heard out about the Great North Run when I moved to Newcastle Upon Tyne from Southern Italy in 2017.

Every year I would stand in the crowd and cheer on all the runners as they gave it everything they got. I always wanted to take part and even planned to sign up in 2020, but the event was cancelled due to the pandemic.

This year I finally decided to enter the Great North Run. I am very excited and super keen to keep going with my training. The longest run I’ve done so far was 8km in 40 minutes; which is quite good, I think!

I’ve also been reading ‘The Science of Running’. I wanted to make sure I had all the theory necessary to avoid injuries and sustain my training through the year.

I wanted to get a little bit out of my comfort zone by taking part in the event. Not just by doing the run itself (I am not a natural runner!), but also by sharing for the first time the personal reasons behind my decision to run for MDUK – and why I work in science.

If love could cure, my aunties would still be here

I am running in memory of my aunties – Anna, Angela, Maria and Lucia

I have so many happy memories with my aunties. My family and I grew up with them and my grandma in Southern Italy. We all had lunch together nearly every single day for 14 years, up until my twin and I started high school.

My mum is one of five sisters. She also happens to be the only one who did not inherit the genetic condition, myotonic dystrophy type 1.

I made a promise that I would change things one day – that’s why I became a scientist!

My aunties Anna, Angela, Maria and Lucia sadly passed away from this condition. Throughout their lives they all struggled with the debilitation that living with myotonic dystrophy brought. 

My mum has always done everything in her power to make things easier for my aunties. For as much as love can sometimes be the cure, it was not enough to keep my aunties alive. I remember the hopelessness of those times – it is the worst feeling I have ever experienced.

While I grew up becoming familiar with the symptoms of this cruel condition, I made a promise to myself that I would do something one day. That’s when I decided to become a scientist!

Researching to help find a cure

My determination to help find a cure for neuromuscular conditions led me to the UK and the city of Newcastle.

After completing my undergraduate and Master’s degree in Italy, I moved to Newcastle University to join the John Walton Muscular Dystrophy Research Centre. Then, I completed my PhD at the Wellcome Centre for Mitochondrial Disease, where I now work as a research associate.

Our aim is to identify new therapies and ultimately, to find a cure for neuromuscular conditions.

Together with my research team, I study a range of neuromuscular conditions – including the one that has so deeply affected my family, myotonic dystrophy type 1.

We’re doing some very exciting research at the moment, exploring how weightlifting training could improve physical performance in patients with mitochondrial myopathy and myotonic dystrophy type 1. It’s amazing to see how the skeletal muscle of patients changes after a period of exercise.

Our aim with this research is to try to identify potential new therapeutic targets and ultimately, to find a cure for these.

Running the Great North Run is about instilling hope for the future

I think knowledge is about becoming aware – and awareness means being closer than we think to the cure for conditions, like myotonic dystrophy type 1.

Neuromuscular conditions are more common than people think, but the genetic causes are countless. We need more scientists around the world working, researching and collaborating together to find a cure.

As my lovely supervisor and Director of the Wellcome Centre for Mitochondrial Research, Prof Grainne Gorman, says: “Without research, there will never be hope for a cure. Let’s find one together”.

Running the Great North Run is a matter of shining a light on the cause and raising money to help fund vital research but for me, it’s also about instilling hope for the future.

If you want to join Valeria in running for people with muscle-wasting conditions and to help fund life-changing research, join #TeamOrange and sign up for the Great North Run 2023.

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