Professor Michela Di Virgilio wants to find out which factors regulate DNA damage formation and repair. These factors are essential to maintain genome integrity, and hence to minimize our risk to develop cancer. She will now receive a total of €1 million in research funding from the Helmholtz Association over the next five years.
Di Virgilio had already been chosen for the funding, which is linked to a first-time appointment at a German university, in 2020. Since February 1st the researcher took up a tenured W2 professorship at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. She had previously held a junior professorship at Charité and the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) since 2018. Di Virgilio was promoted from junior to senior group leader at the MDC last year and has now been heading the Genome Diversification & Integrity Lab there for seven years.
Her métier: DNA double-strand breaks
B lymphocytes are progenitors of the antibody-producing cells in our body. Upon encountering pathogens, they purposedly introduce DNA breaks in their antibody genes, and exploit ubiquitous DNA repair mechanisms to rearrange genetic segments. Different genetic combinations give rise to different classes of antibodies – a mechanism that B cells intentionally use to create a more diverse immune defense. In this way B cells produce a wide range of antibodies that can use different strategies to render the pathogens harmless and successfully dispose of them.
Di Virgilio is investigating the interplay of mechanisms that selectively trigger breaks in the DNA of B cells and that subsequently repair such breaks. Yet her research findings also provide insights beyond the field of immunology. “Though I work with B cells, my research has much broader implications,” Di Virgilio says. “DNA repair is a fundamental process that occurs in all cell types.” More than 20 disease syndromes in humans are known to result from defects in DNA double-strand break repair - from increased propensity to cancer, developmental and neurological disorders, as well as immunodeficiencies.
About funding of first-time appointments
With funding from its Initiative and Networking Fund, the Helmholtz Association aims to help highly qualified female scientists establish themselves as professors during the early phase of their careers. The program focuses on supporting the first-time appointments of excellent female scientists to W2 or W3 university professorships and on strengthening cooperation with partner universities. This serves to increase the proportion of women in scientific leadership positions within the Helmholtz Association and create reliable career prospects. The funding amount for each W2 and W3 professorship is up to €1 million over a period of five years (€200,000 p.a.). The grant can be used to fund the position of the female scientist and their research group.