IBEC’s newest junior group leader: Vito Conte

vitoconteVito Conte may be familiar to many, having spent more than four years in Xavier Trepat’s Integrative Cell and Tissue Dynamics group, first as a postdoc and later as a Juan de la Cierva fellow. Vito now is a Ramon y Cajal fellow and leads the Mechanics of Development and Disease group, which will take a new direction as he develops new biophysical tools to quantify the mechanics of cell and tissues in 3D environments.

“With a strong background in studying how cell and tissue mechanics determine structure and function from my time as a postdoc, I want to carry on exploring the physical mechanisms of development and disease in biological organisms” says Vito, who completed his PhD in biomechanical engineering at King’s College London in the group of Prof. Mark Miodownik, now director of the Institute of Making at UCL. “To do this, my group will develop novel tools to carry out in vivo and in vitro mechanical measurements, which we will integrate into 2D and 3D models of the biological organisms being studied.”

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Vito’s in silico models will have realistic geometries and material properties, such as anisotropy, heterogeneity, poroelasticity, and non-linear viscoelasticity. These models will allow the group to make predictive biomechanical analyses of organisms by studying the necessary and sufficient conditions needed for their normal development – and, on the other hand, for disease to emerge – in environments that are very close to real conditions.

“Our current investigations are focusing on the mechanics of cancer progression,” explains Vito. “There is growing evidence that cancer progression alters the mechanical properties of affected cells and tissues. However, we don’t know whether these alterations feed back into the cancer progression; if they do, they may represent a way to hinder or stop the disease biomechanically.” By revealing the interplay between mechanics and malignancy of tissues, the group will identify new biomechanical markers or physical mechanisms of cancer progression that could be targeted clinically to prevent and treat the disease – for example, the rigidity of tumorous tissues as opposed to the softness of cancer cells.

Another area of interest for Vito and his group is the interplay between the mechanics of antibiotics action and bacterial resistance, which could potentially lead towards therapies aimed at decreasing bacterial resistance to known drugs, as well as aiding the design of new ones. “The growing consensus is that some antibiotic drugs kill bacteria through biochemical events that might possibly involve mechanical processes, such as force generation at the bacterial cell envelope,” Vito says. “As bacteria have selectively evolved resistance to antibiotics via increasingly sophisticated mechanisms, these processes may ultimately result in a change of the mechanical properties of these prokaryotic microorganisms, thus offering a potential way to decrease organism resistance or increase drug efficiency.”

Vito is already working with the group of Lorenzo Albertazzi, another IBEC newcomer, on this project, but he’s keen to strike up collaborations with other groups at the institute and elsewhere, as well as with clinicians and industry partners. “I’m very happy to share my expertise in biomechanical quantification of biological phenomena,” he says. “For quantification we need data, so that’s a good place to start!”

For now, Vito is concentrating on building his group and settling into his new position. “When you’ve sprung from such a big tree as Xavier Trepat, it’s a challenge to put down your own roots,” he says. “I’m delighted to have this fantastic opportunity to start my independent research group at IBEC, both to make my own contribution to its scientific reputation, but also to make the most of the opportunities it offers to carry out multidisciplinary work, build strong collaborations, and develop basic research results into products that benefit society.”