K. Albin Johansson Cancer Research Fellow (4/2020-3/2023) Valerio Izzi was trained as a molecular biologist and did his PhD in immunology and applied biotechnologies in the University of Rome “Tor Vergata”. As a student, he was always drawn to both bioinformatics and immunology but finally decided to specialize in the latter. However, when he moved to Finland in 2012, his passion for bioinformatics re-ignited ever stronger and now Valerio works as an associate professor (tenure-track) of bioinformatics at the University of Oulu.
Extracellular matrix and cancer
Valerio’s research focuses strongly on extracellular matrix (ECM) and cancer, especially in untangling the signaling pathways and functions the ECM elicit in the tumor microenvironment. He got into ECM research when he joined the group of Professor Pihlajaniemi at the University of Oulu in 2012 and started working on acute myeloid leukemia. At that time, Valerio did not expect to get so passionate about ECM, but nowadays he thinks it as a topic that gets more and more fascinating every day!
Method development and large omics analyses
IzziLab pursues both method development and large omics analyses. They call their approach “computational matrix biology”, hence they use all sorts of big data to approach the study of the tumor ECM from a systems biology point of view. The “matrisome” - the ensemble of the ECM and various proteins - is an entity of about a thousand components. Valerio and his colleagues strongly believe that only looking at it in its entirety can allow them to understand how it works and what its functions are in the tumor microenvironment. To get this done, they crunch loads of data into R, Python, and other programming languages, often developing their own algorithms and performing extensive analyses.
Valerio’s and his collegues’ latest publication Analysis of extracellular matrix network dynamics in cancer using the MatriNet database was published in Matrix Biology in June 2022. In this paper, they utilized what is currently known about ECM interactions and built a protein interaction network model. Then, by using various complex mathematical formulas, they calculated how each “piece” of the network influenced each other and how strong or weak entire areas of the network are. Valerio and his team repeated this analysis on tens of thousands of cancer patient data as well as on healthy donors, using both transcriptomics and proteomics data, as well as on hundred thousand data points from single-cell studies. The results are all browsable in their database and do not require any expertise in bioinformatics to be explored: it’s all just point and click! Valerio hopes this resource will unravel novel vulnerabilities in the cancer microenvironment, towards which new drugs could be directed or repurposed.
Nature and metal music
Apart from work, Valerio and his wife are avid trekkers, so any time they can, they take the opportunity to go hiking into the astounding Finnish nature. They enjoy both northern Lapland in the winter as well as archipelago in the summer. When not tramping, Valerio and his wife enjoy the lively metal music scene of Oulu and the whole Finland.