Maria Luisa Pisanelli is an Italian PhD student with a background in Biological Sciences, mainly Microbiology and Cell Biology. She is curious to understand how the treatments against infectious diseases are designed and developed. How do doctors and researchers put all the pieces together to solve the complex clinical puzzle of a viral infection? A major limitation is the scarce availability of well-characterized potent drugs inhibiting the viral replication, named antivirals. Maria Luisa chose to work at the Rega Institute (KU Leuven) in the Laboratory of Virology and Chemotherapy, where cutting edge facilities allow broad compound screening and drug discovery programmes, together with research on the mechanism of action of a compound class and its structure-activity relationship. Living in the heart of Flanders, Maria Luisa enjoys the mid-afternoon break or vieruurtje with an Italian style espresso coffee and a piece of delicious authentic Belgian chocolate. However, being a backpacker, she is always ready to visit other laboratories to collaborate and to exchange ideas and technologies, in order to become an all-round scientist in an international environment.
About Maria Luisa’s research project
Maria Luisa works in the team of Prof. Johan Neyts where research is focused on antiviral chemotherapy and vaccine development. Supervised by Joana Pereira, the PhD project of Maria Luisa explores new antiviral strategies to combat human norovirus (HNoVs) and human rotavirus (HRVs). These are both RNA viruses recognized as the main cause of gastroenteritis that can be fatal to children, elderly and immunocompromised people. Diarrhoeal diseases are listed by World Health Organization in the top 10 global burdens.
To test whether a chemical compound limits the replication or “growth” of a virus, you need to have a model where the virus indeed replicates. However, due to host restriction, HNoVs and HRVs viruses do not really replicate in conventional well-established models (e.g. cell lines or animal models), making antiviral research trickier. Recently, HNoVs and HRVs could be cultured in human intestinal enteroids, a specific type of organoids or stem cell-derived cell culture systems, recapitulating on a dish the main features of intestine, such as the presence of different cell types.
HNoVs and HRVs replication in enteroids allows to closer model the in vivo dynamics but they require optimizations: the cultivation of clinical strains is still challenging and not all host factors involved in the infection are known (e.g. HNoVs cell receptor). Through a doctoral secondment at University of Cambridge (Department of Pathology) Maria Luisa will start to improve the enteroids infection models with the final objective to develop appropriate and robust antiviral testing protocols.
Besides, enteroids can be exploited to answer fundamental questions about HNoVs and HRVs biology. For instance, Neyt’s team recently demonstrated robust HNoVs replication in zebrafish larvae, isn’t it interesting to explore what features do this little ray-finned fish and human enteroids share?
About the Rega Institute for Medical Research, KU Leuven
In 2016 and 2017 the University of Leuven (KUL) was listed by Thomson Reuters in the annual list of Europe’s most innovative universities. The Rega Institute for Medical Research (KUL-REGA) is part of the University of Leuven (KUL). It consists of departments of medicine and pharmacology and is a renowned center in Europe contributing to the discovery of novel antiviral and antibacterial treatments (Brivudine, Tenofovir).