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PhD Spotlight: Alicia Rosell Hidalgo

Alicia Rosell Hidalgo

PhD in Biochemistry

My research involves studying the effects of pharmaceutical drugs and fungicides on mitochondrial function. Mitochondria play a vital role in the life and death of our cells and our overall health. They not only produce about 95% of the energy needed for cell function, but they also host critical metabolic functions such as the tricarboxylic acid cycle (essential for the release of stored energy) and apoptosis-programmed cell death. A number of pharmaceuticals have been shown to impair these functions leading to undesirable side effects and toxicities.

I am developing computational models to predict the effects of pharmaceuticals on mitochondrial function. My research involves in vitro (lab) studies that evaluate mitochondrial toxicity, alongside in silico (computer) studies, such as Quantitative Structure Activity Relationship (QSAR) and molecular docking. These computational approaches are powerful tools in the development of models that establish a relationship between the inhibitory activity affecting the mitochondria and different chemical characteristics of compounds. This could ultimately help predict the mitochondrial toxicity caused by unknown chemicals and help facilitate the development of safer drugs, increasing their chances of progression within the long and costly drug development process. My research will particularly focus on the direct inhibition of the respiratory chain complexes within mitochondria and the consequent disruption of oxidative phosphorylation (the metabolic pathway in which cells use enzymes to oxidize nutrients, thereby releasing energy).

Identifying mitochondrial toxicities early on in the drug development process will help us make safer drugs that retain the desired therapeutic effect but lack, or have minimal, side effects. During the last century a good number of drugs have been withdrawn from the market due to safety concerns mainly attributed to hepatotoxicity and cardiotoxicity (chemical-driven damage to the liver and heart muscle respectively). Some of these toxicities have then been linked to the adverse effects of the drugs on mitochondria. It is vital that we work towards preventing such side effects; compromised mitochondrial function is a leading cause of a wide range of human diseases, such as metabolic disorders, neurodegenerative and neurological disorders, cardiovascular diseases and cancer.  

I am passionate about understanding how things work and find the process of learning very rewarding. This suits my project given that mitochondrial research is such an open field of study; much is still unknown. We are only now starting to understand their effects in health and disease. Before my PhD I studied at the University of Madrid. I graduated with a Biology degree and then completed my Masters in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biomedicine. Upon completion of my Masters I was awarded a grant to complete an Erasmus+ mobility programme for an academic year at the University of Brighton.

I quickly realised Brighton is a great place to be a student. During my time at the University of Brighton, I discovered how much I enjoyed living here. It came across as a nice, friendly and multicultural city. I wanted to continue studying here and I had heard good things about the University of Sussex, so I decided to apply for PhD studentships in projects that I was interested in.

I feel supported by my supervisors (Dr Tara Ghafourian and Prof Tony Moore) and my colleagues here. I always receive help if I have any questions or doubts and I enjoy working with people that care about me and my work. I value the opportunities I have to share my findings; I gave a talk at the Christmas Bioenergetics meeting at the University of Cambridge. I also really enjoy the freedom and independence that a PhD gives you to make your own decisions and follow your own interests. I think it is so important your PhD is something you are truly interested in so that you can stay motivated throughout.

By: Jessica Gowers
Last updated: Thursday, 31 October 2019