UF Health Cancer Center member highlight: Alberto Perez, Ph.D.

Alberto Perez, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the department of chemistry whose research aims to understand the involvement of BET proteins in cancer and disease. He works on integrative structural biology to combine experimental data with simulation techniques (molecular dynamics) to understand the behavior of proteins and nucleic acids, including their structure, function, interactions and mechanisms of action.

Alberto Perez, Ph.D.

Perez earned his Bachelor of Science in chemistry and his Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Barcelona. He completed postdoctoral training at the University of California, San Francisco and Stony Brook University, where he also worked as a research assistant professor at the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology. He joined the University of Florida in 2018.

At the UF Health Cancer Center, he is a member of the Mechanisms of Oncogenesis research program. He recently received a four-year $1.2 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to study how bromodomain and extra-terminal domain (BET) proteins may play a role in treating cancer. Last year, he also received funding through the American Cancer Society’s Institutional Research Grants.

What are your current research interests?

Our objective is to understand the involvement of BET proteins in cancer and disease. These proteins are involved in regulating immune response genes. Our ongoing research focuses on the ET domain that acts as an interaction hub, interacting with multiple host regulatory proteins, as well as viruses that exploit it for infection. Our computational pipelines help determine the structures of how peptide epitopes interact with ET and their binding affinity. Ultimately, our aim is to identify new partners that bind to this domain, both from viruses and regulatory proteins, and assess the viability of targeting this domain for therapeutic applications. 

How did you end up going into research and why did you decide on your specialty?

I always had a curiosity about how DNA works, which led me to enroll for a chemistry degree. I found an internship in computational chemistry, where I found my passion combining the study of proteins and nucleic acids at the atomic scale using the rules of physics and chemistry.

Why did you decide to focus on cancer?

In this specific instance, it occurred serendipitously. We were working together with a virologist and an NMR expert to decipher the structures of the ET domain to a protein from the murine leukemia virus. This undertaking presented numerous challenges that necessitated a blend of experimental work and computational approaches. As our efforts advanced, we began uncovering additional interactions with other proteins, eventually revealing the significant role of the ET domain in cancer. This revelation has revitalized our determination and drive to develop therapeutics based on peptidomimetics. 

What do you want to achieve with your work and/or in your career?

Our objective is to enhance integrative structural biology pipelines for quicker discovery rates. Furthermore, we are collaborating with diverse partners to implement our tools in addressing health-related challenges.

What excites you about your work? What is exciting to you about your field right now?

As molecular modelers, we get to solve puzzles that have real-life implications. Our choice of modeling tools, how to represent the system and how to capture the important biological implications decide how successful we are in solving these puzzles.

Machine learning is changing how we do many things in the lab. It provides faster and more accurate solutions to problems that have been a bottleneck until recently. Discovering new ways of incorporating machine learning and new applications makes this a very exciting time to work in computational chemistry. 

“Discovering new ways of incorporating machine learning and new applications makes this a very exciting time to work in computational chemistry.”

Alberto Perez, Ph.D.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I like to practice karate and play soccer. I have also been slowly learning Japanese over the years.