Michela Di Virgilio is currently head of the Helmholtz Young Investigator Group on DNA Repair and Maintenance of Genome Stability at the MDC. As part of this group, the biologist researches how cells respond and deal with breaks in DNA, and the effects that a defective cellular response to these lesions can have. The precise and efficient repair of DNA breaks is crucial for cell survival and genome stability. The researcher wants to understand the molecular mechanisms that can ensure the correct repair of such DNA lesions.
“DNA breaks are usually detrimental for cells and organisms since, when not repaired, they can induce oncogenic chromosome rearrangements,” says Di Virgilio. However, in some specialized cell types and functions cells can induce DNA breaks because they use them as intermediates in chromosome reactions that are important to diversify our genome. “One example are B lymphocytes that undergo Class Switch Recombination to diversify the antibody responses.”
Michela Di Virgilio is interested in unveiling how these special breaks are formed and repaired to ensure a proper immune response. Her long-term goal is to elucidate how cancer and immunodeficiencies occur when these processes are not regulated properly. “A break is not bad per se but it is the context and how you repair it that makes the difference between good or bad outcome”, Di Virgilio adds.
The importance of Michela Di Virgilio’s work became apparent just a few months after she joined the MDC: in December 2014, the researcher was awarded an ERC Starting Grant worth €1.9 million. Since 2017, she has also coordinated the Helmholtz research initiative “Immunology & Inflammation.” The duration of Michela Di Virgilio’s new junior professorship is initially limited to three years. If it is evaluated as successful during this time, it may be extended for a further three years. The professorship is a joint appointment of Charité and the MDC, and Di Virgilio’s research group will continue its work at the MDC.