‘Too often, chemical libraries sit in lab freezers and are never tested’

19 Aug 2020

Pietro Marchese, a PhD student NUI Galway. Image: Pietro Marchese

Pietro Marchese, a PhD student of NUI Galway and the Marine Institute, will be studying Irish deep-sea fungi in Florida.

Pietro Marchese holds a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and a master’s in plant biotechnology from the University of Turin in Italy. After a short Erasmus experience at NUI Galway, he applied for and received Irish Research Council funding to pursue a PhD at the university’s Regenerative Medicine Institute.

He is a Fulbright-Marine Institute student awardee and plans to travel to the University of South Florida in Tampa next year to investigate the chemistry of Irish deep-sea fungi. The application period for 2020-2021 Fulbright Irish Awards opens on 31 August 2020.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Nature has constantly fascinated me, especially the marine world, and some of my best memories from a young age involve exploring the Mediterranean Sea by free diving or scuba diving. My innate curiosity and experimental characteristic trait was always there since childhood and one of my favourite hobbies ever was fixing (or breaking) things.

I guess I became a researcher as several aspects of my character pushed me into this direction, but one specific memory helped me to understand what being a researcher really meant.

That path-changing moment happened after reading Rita Levi-Montalcini’s biography, ‘In Praise of Imperfection’. The author’s admirable passion for science and undeterred determination to understand a bit more forced her to continue her experiments hiding in her house basement while fascists were combing the city during the second world war.

My mother gave me that book just before entering university and when I did, I knew I would try to become a researcher.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

My current research focuses on the study of microbial communities living in the deep north Atlantic Ocean. In the lab, I isolate fungi and bacteria from sediments and soft corals that were sampled off the Irish coast by the deep-sea research group at NUI Galway.

In this way, I try to advance the understanding of what species are living in those habitats and, one day, maybe identify their role in that environment.

Another part of my project is to investigate the potential of marine microorganisms to produce new compounds for pharmaceutical applications, such as the identification of novel drug candidates to treat diseases associated with bone and cartilage degeneration. At the Regenerative Medicine Institute in Galway, we study the use of mesenchymal stem cells to repair these tissues and ultimately treat osteoarthritis or osteoporosis.

In my case, I apply advanced technology for high throughput drug screening using robotic handling systems in order to test the bioactivity of hundreds of microbial compounds and find those influencing the stem cell behaviour.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Marine microbiology, especially the study of marine fungi, is still in its infancy compared to the terrestrial counterpart. We are understanding now that fungi and bacteria play essential roles in marine biogeochemical cycles, which in turn have an impact on the maintenance of the global environmental equilibrium we are used to live in.

To describe what microbes are doing in the sea, why and how they are doing it is essential for us to gain a better understanding of the marine environment and hopefully contribute to its preservation.

The other side of my research has a more direct impact on our society, which is the treatment of millions of people around the world living with painful conditions associated with deterioration of bone and cartilage. Osteoarthritis is currently untreatable and one among the debilitating diseases worldwide.

It can be treated using stem cells to repair and regenerate the tissues, we just need to perfect a reliable way to do it. A third reason why I consider my research important is that the development of new drugs from the sea, if properly disseminated, might help to raise the attention about the importance of conservation and protection of the marine environment for a mutual benefit.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Science can be very hard and frustrating. Many days you have no idea why you’re doing what you’re doing. You can easily question what’s the meaning of your life while throwing the latest unsuccessful experiment in the bin. But then satisfaction always comes unexpectedly.

Doing research requires the ability to adapt, therefore being able to handle potentially numerous failures is one of the biggest and most daunting challenges to face.

I consider myself very lucky to be working with extremely supportive supervisors, who clearly have in mind the educative duty they have with postgraduate students to train them as knowledgeable and conscious scientists.

This is unfortunately not the case for all PhD students, who in some cases have to struggle with complicated relations with their supervisors, often prioritising the results to the students’ education.

My opinion is that stronger institutional regulations to protect postgraduate students would definitely help to generate a happier and better prepared next generation of scientists and ultimately lead to a much productive research.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I think there is a common belief that ‘natural’ preparations to treat various clinical conditions are to be preferred to the use of well-developed drugs. What should be considered is that the majority of common drugs are based on molecules initially isolated from the natural environment and also that taking high doses of some sort of natural preparation might in fact be as dangerous as overdosing drugs.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I think we are at a stage now where natural products’ chemistry is very advanced and we are able to isolate more than 1,000 new molecules every year from the sea alone. Too often, these chemical libraries sit in lab freezers and are never tested for biotechnological applications.

The development of new screening platforms for various diseases and the creation of a highly collaborative network might help to develop new drugs at a higher rate and avoid the waste of resources.

What I’d also like to see tackled in the future is the development of strong regulations to protect third-world countries’ biological property: is it still fair to sell a new life-saving drug to a country where the fungus, bacteria or plant producing the active principle was initially isolated from?

Updated, 6pm, 4 September 2020: This article was updated to clarify that Pietro Marchese has not yet begun his Fulbright programme and plans to travel to Florida next year.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.