Interview with Antonella Di Pizio

Personal information about Antonella Di Pizio

Antonella Di Pizio, born in 1984, studied Pharmaceutical Chemistry and Technology at the "University of Chieti", Italy. She also obtained her PhD "Doctor Europaeus" in the field of "Drug Design" from this university. After a short research stay at Philips University in Marburg, Germany, she worked as a postdoc at the "Hebrew University of Jerusalem" in Israel from 2013 to 2018. Since October 2018, she leads the research group "Molecular Modeling" at the Leibniz Institute.

Awards

Dr. Antonella Di Pizio received numerous awards for her research work, including the Bernardo Nobile Doctorate Award (2013), the Keystone Symposia Future of Science Fund scholarship (2017), and the Platinum Manfred Rothe Excellence Award in Flavor Research (2019).

You have studied pharmaceutical chemistry in Italy, followed by a PhD and a PostDoc in Israel. What brought you to Freising / Germany and the LeibnizLSB@TUM?

During my postdoc I started working on bitter taste receptors. I got more and more engaged in the field of chemical senses, how we perceive the taste of food. At the molecular level, this is a complex and fascinating process, with many open questions. I strongly believe that molecular modeling can certainly contribute to provide answers. The Leibniz Institute is the most suitable place to work on this topic, and this is the reason I am so happy to be here.

What was the most significant change in terms of research and daily life?

I have a new role and more responsibilities, and this has necessarily changed my daily research schedule. Compared to my PhD and postdoc, I have more research independence, and the approach towards new projects has changed. Currently, I am rather a designer of the projects. I have to think about how to shape my ideas into grant applications in order to get funding and make them real, and how to coordinate projects with my colleagues.

At the Leibniz-LSB@TUM you are in charge of the Computational Pharmacology working group—what does it mean exactly?

The main goal of the Section III is to analyze the data produced in the wet-lab and use this information to develop predictive models. Under this big frame, my group looks at food-relevant molecules and their interactions. My working group is relatively new at the Institute and it is really exciting to build it up. It is also great to work with the other groups at the Institute on an interdisciplinary level.

What are the tools you are using to generate and to evaluate the data within your research?

I am using many different tools. The basic principle beyond my work is the transformation of chemical structures in numbers, and this allows a huge range of applications: we can investigate how chemical modifications affect certain activities, or how small molecules like odorants or tastants interact with target proteins, or even simulate proteins in motion.

In a recent project in collaboration with partners from Israel you have developed highly effective activators for the bitter receptor TAS2R14. What was the purpose of this work? And what will be the next steps to work on?

This work had a double purpose. One was to overcome a knowledge gap in the bitter world, since none of the known bitter compounds, even the highly bitter ones, exhibit high potencies, if they are compared to activators of many other G-protein coupled receptors such as neuropeptides. The second goal was strictly methodological: computational tools, as “molecular docking,” have limited applicability to bitter taste receptors, since no structural data are available from experimental studies, such as X-ray structure analysis. We developed a successful strategy to overcome these limitations and we proved that docking simulations can be used to design new TAS2R ligands that are more potent than previously known compounds. This developed computational protocol can now be used for virtual screening campaigns to identify new potent bitter taste receptor modulators.

What are bitter substances? Are they only characterized by their bitter taste or is there more to it?

Much more than taste. But it is complicated. Bitter has been always associated with toxicity, but we know that many toxic compounds are not bitter and definitely not all bitter compounds are toxic. Many bitter molecules are believed to have even health benefits, such as chemo-protection and reduced cancer risk. So many potential applications for these molecules!

How do you manage the balancing act between family and scientific work? What advice do you have for other parents pursuing a scientific career?

That’s not easy but not impossible. The short and obvious suggestion is that a supportive partner and a punctual organization play a big role in dealing with this balance. And I get support from the Institute as well, with flexible working hours, careful schedule of work meetings, and full understanding. But the research work is very engaging—it is difficult to put time and space limitations to it. And being a parent... well, it is a life commitment! However, in my personal experience, I am a much more focused and productive researcher since my son was born. I know that my time is precious, and I make the best use of it. And my work makes me happy and satisfied, I am convinced it makes me a better mother!

Who is your role model and how does your role model shape or influence you?

I actually do not have a role model, but I am so lucky to have great scientists who are also wonderful people around me. I try to be like them, and do science with love and passion, but also and mainly thinking of it as a collaborative effort. I have to say that at the Leibniz-LSB@TUM I found many of these role models! What are your plans for the future? I have plenty of ideas and plans. I would say that all converge to my ambition to see my group growing and producing research outcomes that will contribute to improve social health and lifestyle.