Francesca Rapino is a F.R.S.-FNRS research associate at the Stem Cells-Cancer Signaling Laboratory (GIGA Institute / Faculty of Medicine) at the University of Liège. She has been recently awarded an ERC Starting Grant from the European Research Council for her project tRNAtoGO. Endowed with 1.5 million euros, this project aims to approach the concept of Cancer Stem Cells (CSC) from a new and innovative angle.
This research in fundamental biology will describe the cellular origin of cancer stem cells (CSC), and focuses on assessing the role of tRNA heterogeneity in their establishment. CSC are a small portion of cancer cells responsible for the initiation, development and ability to resist to treatment of tumors. Therefore, understanding the mechanisms enabling CSC establishment and maintenance is of great interest for the design of new therapeutic and diagnostic strategies.
«The tRNAtoGO project will focus on understanding and characterizing the origin of cancer stem cells from a tRNA perspective. Transfer ribonucleic acids, or tRNA, are involved in the synthesis of proteins in the cell. They are key intermediaries in the translation of the genetic message into their effectors in cells- the proteins. To understand the role of tRNAs in CSC we will use cutting edge technologies and clinical relevant models such as patient derived cell lines, genetic modified murine models and a wide range of sequencing and proteomics approaches. I hope that the fundamental discovers we will make will identify new potential vulnerabilities that can be utilized for targeted therapies in cancer », she explains.
The project will be carried out at the GIGA institute (www.giga.uliege.be). To implement this research, she is looking for two highly motivated PhD students and a Post-doc fellow to join her team. Candidates with a strong interest in fundamental cancer research and/or omics data analysis pipelines development are encouraged to apply!
Francesca Rapino's research focuses on understanding how cancer cells establish their proteomes - the set of effectors that carry out any biological program in the cells. During her PhD, she focused on the understanding of the molecular mechanisms regulating tumor growth and sensitivity/resistance to therapy with a particular interest in the regulation of protein homeostasis. Since her arrival in Liège, she has been introduced to the world of tRNAs and has helped to establish the first link between cancer treatment and tRNA biology. Her recent work highlighted the role of specific tRNA modifying enzymes (U34-enzymes) in maintaining colon cancer stem cell capacity, breast metastasis, and resistance to BRAF inhibitors in melanoma. In 2018 she published the first study causatively linking codon-specific translation to cancer resistance to target therapy (Rapino et al., Nature 2018).
She was born in Rome, where she obtained a Master's degree in Molecular Biology at the University of Tor Vergata in 2010. She completed a PhD in molecular pharmacy (2013) at the J. W. Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main (Germany) with Prof. Simone Fulda and continued her scientific career as a post-doc at the University of Liege (Belgium) in Dr. Pierre Close’s lab (GIGA Institute). In 2020, she obtained a mandate as a research associate (”chercheur qualifié”) from the F.R.S.-FNRS.
She is a mobile researcher, having experienced research stays in Barcelona (Erasmus), and Brazil (in an NGO). What brought her to Liège was indeed her passion and talent for research, but also the fact that her husband was working in Brussels. « You do not fall in love with Liège at first sight, this is true, but when you get to know this city, you realize how lucky you are: it is not too big but with a lot of social and cultural opportunities, and the people are warm and welcoming ». The University of Liège is not the biggest in Belgium, but Francesca noticed through her already rich career that middle size universities provide niche opportunities where a young researcher’s talent can be noticed and valued earlier on in their career, than in the most famous institutions.