Patrizia Agostinis

From her beginning career in Padua as a biochemist, Patrizia Agostinis has always been seeking the connection between one process and another, or among several simultaneous or sequential processes. She started by asking how photodynamic therapy worked. This query led her, by the time that she had moved to Leuven, to the field of cell death, where she began considering cancers such as melanoma and gliomas. She was among the first to examine how ER stress connected to mitochondria, and how cell surface signaling connected to autophagy. Following these questions led her to consider Damage Associated Molecular Patterns, or DAMPs, and their connection to Protein kinase R (PKR)-like endoplasmic reticulum kinase (PERK), taking her to the study of ER-Plasma Membrane and ER-mitochondria contact sites, a study in which she became one of the leaders and principal players. Still active in these areas, in the last ten years she has turned her attention also to immunologically-induced cell death, examining how targeted cells invoke Unfolded Protein Responses and ultimately die, and is now examining the possibility of immunotargeting dendritic cells to limit the devastation of glioma. Her current research aims to connect the unfolded protein response, reactive oxygen and endoplasmic reticulum pathways, with autophagy, cell death and the immune response to dying cells, currently a very exciting area of study. Given her interest in damage-associated molecular patterns, she has successfully explored many of the more subtle consequences of damage to malignant cells by photo- or chemotherapy, including the pathways from the initial reaction, involving a kinase (phosphorylating enzyme) called PERK, and tracing how the response moves from the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) to mitochondria and the cell membrane. Through very careful and focused work, she has identified the contact sites through which the ER communicates to these other organelles, establishing a mechanism whereby injury initiates autophagy (self-eating) and to a different pattern of death. While maintaining these projects, Patrizia is an unfailingly helpful collaborator and supporter of others, and her students and collaborators have prospered. As a Past President of ECDO and full Professor and group leader of the Cell Death Research & Therapy lab at the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine & Center for Cancer Biology of the VIB-KU Leuven, she cooperates with laboratories throughout Europe and the world, and the breadth of her insight has been important to the whole field.