Scientist of the month: Diego Pasini

Diego Pasini from the European Institute of Oncology tells us about his work on chromatin modifiers and how he became an epigenetics researcher.

Brief biography

Diego Pasini, PhD

Diego Pasini was born in 1977 in Milan. He graduated from the University of Milan at the Faculty of Biological Sciences in 2002 and joined the European Institute of Oncology (IEO) first as a research assistant and then as a PhD student (Open University, London) in the laboratory of Professor Kristian Helin at IEO.

When Kristian Helin moved to Denmark to become Director of the new Biotech Research and Innovation Centre (BRIC) at the University of Copenhagen, Diego Pasini followed him to his new laboratory where he obtained his PhD in 2006. After this, Diego remained part of the Helin laboratory first as a post-doctorate and then as an assistant professor.

In 2010, Diego moved back to Italy to start an independent laboratory at the Department of Experimental Oncology at IEO, where he is currently carrying out his research. In 2015, he was elected EMBO Young Investigator. He has been married since 2003 and has three children.

What sparked your passion for science?

When I was thirteen I was fascinated by nature and I wanted to become a farmer (I grew up in a big city), so I forced my parents to send me to a farm school. Chemistry and science turned out to be the only classes that really caught my interest.

At seventeen I wanted to become a marine biologist probably after watching too much Baywatch on TV, so I started attending biology at the University of Milan. It was at that time that molecular biology fully caught my interest. A complex and invisible world, with still much to be learned and a lot of fascinating tricks to uncover it.

In reality, all I thought about until my last year of university was playing rugby. When I realized that I couldn't make a lot of money out of it, I decided to try with science. I have never been a clever person.

Can you tell us briefly what your lab's current research interests are?

Our lab is interested in characterizing the biological and molecular roles of chromatin modifiers. We have a historical interest in Polycomb proteins, and the recent discoveries of mutations in these proteins in cancer are keeping the field more than alive.

We are focusing a lot on the function of these complexes in adult tissue homeostasis and on the mechanistic insights that link deregulation of chromatin remodeling activity with the development of cancer.

How did you first become interested in the interplay between epigenetics, differentiation and cancer?

I stepped into epigenetics when I first joined Kristian Helin's lab. At that time the lab was interested in discovering downstream targets of the pRB/E2F pathway with the aim of identifying major oncogenic players. The histone methyltransferase for H3K27, Ezh2, and its other partners were among the best targets.

Why is epigenetics so important in the context of cancer research?

Epigenetics has a general role in controlling and modulating cellular identity, which is definitely a common feature altered in most tumor cells. We are talking about a very large set of different enzymatic activities with a lot of druggable potential. All the new genetic data from different cancer types and the development of epigenetic drugs are clearly increasing the relevance of epigenetics in cancer.

Looking to the future, which key epigenetics questions would you like to see answered in the next 5–10 years?

For sure, self-sustainability and heritability of chromatin modifications, especially histone marks, and their trans-generational effect. Either this is a very interesting question or we all have little imagination as it pops up nearly every month in this space.

Do you have any advice to those starting their careers in research?

Ask everybody questions all the time, especially ask yourself. Be ready to question everything that is known, even the most established concepts. In particular, question the concepts that you have generated.

What do you like most about being a scientist?

The lack of an end in what we are doing, and the fact that each small finding always generates a larger number of new questions. The continuous requirement to learn and try new things, the freedom of doing what I think is interesting.

One thing you could not live without (inside or outside the lab)?

Do I sound too conventional if I say my wife and kids? Definitely, I could not live with a tie on all day. Inside the lab, I certainly couldn't live without western blot films. I hate these new digital cameras for western blotting, they are like ebooks: on the one hand they are so much better than reading a paper book, but you lose all the romance of seeing the book on a shelf and thinking about the stories inside.