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Where do scientists (and cancer cells) get their energy?

Dr Mattia Zampieri at ETH Zurich is investigating cancer cell metabolism and how it differs from normal cells.  Like a person’s metabolism refers to how quickly their stomach breaks down food into energy, a cancer cell’s metabolism refers to the chemical processes that break down nutrients inside a cell.  This is needed to make energy and building blocks for new cells.

Scientists know that cancer cells metabolise differently to normal cells.  But the details of how and why - and whether this can be used as a way to target cancer cells with drugs - are still unclear.  Dr Zampieri wants to do something about this.  We recently caught up with him to find out more.

You are one of our youngest ever grant holders.  What research positions and qualifications have you carried out to get to this stage?

My background is mostly centred around theoretical biology. I did my undergraduate studies in bioengineering and a PhD in bioinformatics between Italy and Boston.

During this time I familiarized myself with mathematical models to describe and understand cell metabolism. I was so extremely fascinated by the complexity of biological systems, that very soon my desire was to get closer to experimental biology and step into the shoes of an experimentalist.

I decided to join the laboratory of Professor Uwe Sauer at ETH Zurich, and thanks to an ETH - Marie Curie co-funded postdoc fellowship, I could pursue my own ideas.  This included developing new theoretical and experimental approaches to study metabolism of cells, and exploit a new research line in the lab.

As well as my ETH - Marie Curie co-funded postdoc fellowship I received a Sciex fellowship to support students coming from abroad to work under my mentorship.

How did you end up coming to Worldwide Cancer Research for funding?

Early on in our careers, the search for funding is something we become familiar with very fast. Good ideas are not enough, in academia we know that only too well. In this case it was pretty straight forward: I wanted to apply the technology and computational tools that I developed in the lab to study cancer cell metabolism and its potential weaknesses. Worldwide Cancer Research is among the top funding agencies in this research field that also supports young scientist at the beginning of their career.

How important is this grant?

This grant is fundamental to enable new innovative ideas and has a profound meaning for me, at an early stage in my career. I have a lot of passion for research and am eager to play an active role as a mature and responsible scientist. I strongly believe in my work and having Worldwide Cancer Research believe in it gives me confidence and a deep sense of responsibility and, if possible, even more motivation.

What drives you as a scientist?

Passion and the hope that either directly my research or the people I mentor will have a real impact on society.

What keeps you sane outside of the lab and gives you energy?

I strongly believe I got the chance to do one the most beautiful work in the world. I often feel that thinking obsessively about a scientific question, no matter how important it is or how much committed you are, is never effective. Spending time with my family and friends, traveling, exploring some amazing corners of the world, or photography, these are the activities that regenerate my mind and bring balance in my life.

What are you normally doing when you get your ‘moments of inspiration’ for new research ideas or hypotheses?

It happens very often while jogging, hiking or travelling, mostly in some relaxing place surrounded by nature.

Where do you hope cancer research will be in 20 year’s time?

It is hard to say. Much will depend on developing a stronger cooperation between basic and applied research, pharmaceutical and academic institutions, to foster translation of cancer understanding to clinics and vice versa.

New paradigms in cancer treatment are needed. My hope for the future is that by understanding the cause of cancer we will substitute treatment with prevention.

If you weren’t a scientist what would you be?

I don’t remember when I decided that I wanted to become a scientist. I think the talent and passion of the people I had the chance to learn from or work with had a crucial impact on me, my decisions and my future. I have a profound curiosity for diversity and its beauty. In some way science was a way to explore nature and life, two extreme examples of diversity and beauty.

I think another way to satisfy this curiosity could have been to become a writer for journals like lonely planet or a photographer for the national geographic… but for the time being I will do my best to become a good scientist.

Science Communication Manager at Worldwide Cancer Research

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