Graduate Research Prize Winner 2015
My research curiosity has always been directed towards the biochemistry of the cancer cell - and towards trying to understand its weaknesses. My biggest dream is indeed to find a cure for cancer. Cancer cases are currently increasing, and as a biomedical researcher, I feel obliged to respond.
My scientific education started at the University of Bologna in Italy, where I obtained both my B.Sc. in Biotechnology and my M.Sc. in Pharmaceutical biotechnology. The University of Bologna, besides being the oldest university in Europe, (it was founded in 1088, which makes it even older than Oxford!), was one of the first Italian Universities to offer a degree in Biotechnology.
During my M.Sc. in Bologna, I was amongst 30 people selected from all over the world to participate in the Life Science Summer School at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. During this placement, I worked in the laboratory of Professor Joachim Lingner, who had just discovered that telomeres can be transcribed: I therefore worked on the proteins that interact with telomeric RNA. For my M.Sc. thesis, I interned at the European Institute of Oncology in Milan in the laboratory of Dr. Bruno Amati: Bruno was one of my greatest mentors. The research in the lab was focused on the identification of cancer stem cells through the transcriptional signature given by the transcription factor Myc, and during my time there, and I was fully immersed in a very Myc oriented laboratory.
After these wonderful moments spent in the lab, I decided to keep my research focused on cancer and I therefore joined the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at the University of Oxford: I obtained my DPhil in the laboratory of Dr Skirmantas Kriaucionis. I was his first doctoral student and learnt a lot not only about research, but also about setting up a new lab.
My DPhil work was centred on two main projects. The first, recently published in Nature, focuses on the possibility of exploiting the protection of the epigenetic code by the nucleotide salvage pathway: a sort ofan Achille’s heel for cancer. The newly discovered epigenetic bases 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5hmC) and 5-formylcytosine (5fC) can be administered to cytidine deaminase (CDA) overexpressing cancer cells in their nucleoside form, and set off a chain of events which eventually kills these cancer cells.
My second project focused on Tet2, which is a gene that is mutated in cancer, and it is also implicated in the formation of the aforementioned 5hmC and 5fC.
The University of Oxford is a wonderful place, which provided me with a stimulating environment and huge resources to pursue my research. After Oxford, I decided to have a short break from research-I instead worked at the European Commission in Brussels, in the Health and Food Safety Directorate in the unit specializing on Pharmaceuticals. I am now going back to science, moving to the USA in the lab of Professor Josè Baselga at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, where I will start a post-doctoral fellowship focused on cancer.
• CDA directs metabolism of epigenetic nucleosides revealing a therapeutic window in cancer.
Zauri M, Berridge G, Thézénas ML, Pugh KM, Goldin R, Kessler BM, Kriaucionis S.
Nature. 2015 Aug 6;524(7563):114-8.