Pierluigi Di Chiaro, PhD

European Institute of Oncology (IEO)

WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND?

My first experience in cancer field was during my academic studies at the University of Bologna. I was intrigued by how cancer cells can trigger several molecular mechanisms and control their different cell behaviors. To address my passion, I decided to gain more experience in different research labs in international environments working on different areas of oncology. I had the chance to work abroad at the CIC bioGUNE in Bilbao and at the University of Birmingham where I improved my knowledge in cancer and I gained my strong interest in cancer research.
Back in Italy and thanks to Dr. Gioacchino Natoli and Dr. Giuseppe Riccardo Diaferia (co-founder of IPCC), I had the great opportunity to spend my PhD at the European Institute of Oncology (IEO) for the investigation on the different cellular components composing human pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma tissues using high-throughput spatial transcriptomic approaches.
Recently, I won a prestigious AIRC fellowship for the study of the stromal heterogeneity in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO DO RESEARCH ON PANCREATIC CANCER?

Pancreatic cancer is associated with a poor prognosis and it is predicted to become the second leading cause of cancer mortality by 2030. Since I started to work on pancreatic cancer during my PhD studies, I realized that this remarkable aggressiveness has never been fully clarified. For this reason, I decided to keep studying this disease trying to understand why it is so deadly and the current clinical treatments are so challenging. Although this process requires strong commitment and dedication, the hope that this work will bring important results for the improvement of clinical outcomes and the life quality of patients in the near future is a great self-motivation.

WHAT IS YOUR RESEARCH ABOUT?

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma is a lethal disease with an extremely aggressive behavior. The fibrotic stroma is the major component of the entire tumor volume and it is a complex and heterogeneous mixture of different cell types. Several studies highlighted that tumor-associated stromal cells can influence the tumor phenotype enhancing tumor proliferation, inhibiting the effects of chemotherapy and promoting tumor cell invasion and metastasis.
The overall aim of the project is to molecularly characterize the heterogeneous cellular components of the stromal compartment using spatial transcriptomic approaches such as laser microdissection and multiplexed in situ FISH.

WHAT ARE THE RESERCH PERSPECTIVES AND THE IMPACT OF YOUR WORK?

I expect to identify spatial domains of distinct stromal subpopulations preferentially associated with low- or high-grade tumor cells and to obtain a mechanistic understanding of their transcriptional bases in the complex context of cellular heterogeneity in human PDAC. A molecular understanding of the stromal contribution to PDAC properties will increase the current understanding of the disease and thus will enable the reassessment of the currently available therapeutic options. The identification of novel and more efficient pharmacological approaches targeting specific cellular components will lead to the reshaping of the pancreatic tumor stroma and therefore to the improvement of patient outcomes.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO BE PART OF THE IPCC?

Bringing together basic and translational scientists through the Italian Pancreatic Cancer Community (IPCC) is extremely important to promote scientific exchanges and research collaborations in the field of pancreatic cancer. Science is a collective process depending on the interactions between international scientists and the exchange of different viewpoints. I think Italian Pancreatic Cancer Community is a great opportunity to gain new knowledge in pancreatic cancer and to join our forces to finally defeat this deadly disease

WHEN YOU ARE NOT IN YOUR LAB WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO? 

I like to spend my spare time with my friends doing sport especially playing football, going out for a beer, watching movies together and so on. I love travelling to explore new places!

 

Claudia Curcio, PhD

Department of Molecular Biotechnology and Health Sciences, University of Turin

WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND?

Since my undergraduate trainee I worked on tumor immunology and immunotherapy I got my Master degree in Turin and my thesis aimed at the demonstration that an anti-tumor DNA vaccine “shot” with a gene gun was efficient in delaying, and even cure, smaller established Her2+/neu breast cancers. Then I got the speciality in Clinical Pathology in Turin and moved to the University of Chieti-Pescara where I won a PhD fellowship in Basic and Applied Medical Sciences. This was the only “pause” from tumor immunology as in 2016 I moved back in Turin to join the Tumor Immunology Lab at the CeRMS, Dept of Molecular Biotechnologies and Health Sciences. Here I added my experience to that of the group to further develop novel immunotherapies for the treatment of pancreatic cancer.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO DO RESEARCH ON PANCREATIC CANCER?

It was by chance actually; I was looking for a position in Turin to get closer to my family and the lab was offering one. Immediately after I realized how it’s important to unveil new mechanisms, players and add novel pieces to the big puzzle of the pancreatic cancer. If we, scientists, join our efforts as in the past it has been for breast, colon and lung cancer, we will reach similar success.

WHAT IS YOUR RESEARCH ABOUT?

Some years ago, the lab in which I am working developed a DNA vaccine against one pancreatic cancer-associated molecule, namely alpha-enolase, and I’m focused on designing novel combination to increase its efficacy. I have demonstrated that gemcitabine, a classical chemotherapy drug used in PDAC, increases the efficiency of the anti-tumor response induced by the enolase vaccine, but the potential combinations are really a lot! In addition, I’m working on the development of an ELISA assay to catch autoantibodies that seems to appear very early in pancreatic cancer patients: this could be of some help to anticipate the diagnosis.

WHAT ARE THE RESERCH PERSPECTIVES AND THE IMPACT OF YOUR WORK?

Starting from the last point, it would be very important to anticipate the diagnosis in this badly disease as most of the patients are metastatic when diagnosed and this dramatically decreases the percentage of people eligible for the surgical resection, the gold standard of care. On the other hand, it is also similarly important to develop novel therapeutic strategies more efficient than the conventional ones or that improve the conventional ones. Everyone knows how bad the side effects of the chemo and radiotherapy are; therefore, the possibility to combined them with something that allows decreasing their doses would be of great impact.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO BE PART OF THE IPCC?

I-PCC represents a step forward to succeed in the treatment of pancreatic cancer. It’s a young community which has the ambition to grow and make a great contribution to the scientific and clinical community to fight this “silent killer”. Each of us is eager for sharing own expertise, models, reagents in the attempt to foster research and results in this field.

WHEN YOU ARE NOT IN YOUR LAB WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO? 

When I’m not working, I would like to read books maybe sipping a spritz (Italian typical aperitif)… but at the moment I’m happy to dedicate myself to Giulia, my little girl, and my family in general.

 

Stefania Forcinici, PhD

Nanotechnology Institute - National Research Council (NANOTEC -Cnr)

WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND?

I started my journey in “science” as a Bachelor student in 2008. Science means knowledge and improvement, The world of science has always incredibly fascinated me and for this reason I chose to study Biology, obtaining my Master Degree at the University of Bari in 2014. Thereafter, I achieved the PhD in Biomolecular Medicine at the University of Verona in 2017. During these years, I studied the molecular basis of pancreatic cancer initiation and progression, focusing on the characterization of the biological features of pancreatic cancer stem cells. From March to September 2017, I joined the laboratory of “Stem Cell in Cancer & Aging” led by Prof. Christopher Heeschen at the Barts Cancer Institute (BCI, London, UK), where I continued to study the effect of new therapeutic strategies on patient-derived pancreatic cancer stem cells. On September 2019, I started a post-doctoral fellowship under the supervisor of Dr. Luigi Laghi at the Humanitas Clinical and Research Center in Milan (IT) where I conducted a translational research activity focused on the genotyping of genetic variants as modifier of pancreatic cancer progression and on their involvement in host immune response. Since September 2020, I started a prestigious ERC-founded postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Nanotechnology of CNR (CNR NANOTEC) under the supervisor of Dr. Loretta del Mercato.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO DO RESEARCH ON PANCREATIC CANCER?

I started by chance when my thesis supervisor encouraged me to work on 3D in vitro models of pancreatic cancer, one of the most aggressive and difficult to be treated neoplasms. From that moment I realized that there are poorly understood mechanisms driving this disease and they must be clarified in order to identify possible treatment strategies. For this reason, I decided to work every day with tenacity and constancy to learn more about this “silent killer” and be able to give patients the hope of fighting together.

WHAT IS YOUR RESEARCH ABOUT?

My research project is part of the prestigious ERC-Starting Grant project INTERCELLMED (Sensing CELL-cell INTERaction heterogeneity in 3D tumor models: towards precision MEDicine).
I’m working on the development of 3D in vivo-like culture systems that mimic the pancreatic tumor microenvironment coupled with sensing particles for measuring intracellular and extracellular concentration of key biological analytes (i.e pH, oxygen, K+). Through live imaging and computational analyses we study tumor-stroma interactions and quantify of drugs efficacy.

WHAT ARE THE RESERCH PERSPECTIVES AND THE IMPACT OF YOUR WORK?

Our 3D-in vitro culture systems engineered with sensing particles will be used for culturing patient-derived tumor cells and for evaluating their response to different anticancer drugs.
This approach is oriented towards precision medicine and represents a predictive model of patients’ response to personalized treatments.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO BE PART OF THE IPCC?

Being part of the Italian Pancreatic Cancer Community is a great opportunity that allows to meet and interact with national and international researchers who, like me, work on pancreatic cancer. Ours is a team work, therefore the promotion of collaborations and the exchange of viewpoints is essential to advance knowledge on pancreatic cancer..

WHEN YOU ARE NOT IN YOUR LAB WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO? 

During my free time, I love to walk and visit new places. I like cooking, especially making cakes.
I love shopping, it relaxes me a lot!

 

Sabrina D’Agosto, PhD

Università di Verona

Sabrina D'Agostino

WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND?

I started my journey in “science” as a Bachelor student in 2008. Science means knowledge and improvement, that is why I decided to continue my education by enrolling into Pharmaceutic Biotechnology Course at University of Perugia. I was fortunate to conduct my PhD thesis project in the laboratory of Diagnostic and Public Health, under the supervisor of Dr Claudio Bassi from 2014 to 2016. During these years, I had the possibility to join the laboratory of “Stem Cell in Cancer & Aging” led by Christopher Heeschen at the Barts Cancer Institute (BCI, London, UK) from September 2015 to August 2016. At the BCI, I got interested in using different murine preclinical models of pancreatic cancer to characterize cancer stem cells. Back to Verona, I completed my PhD and started on July 2017 a post-Doctoral fellowship under the supervisor of Dr. Vincenzo Corbo and Prof. Aldo Scarpa. In 2020, I won a prestigious fellowship from AIRC (Italian Association for Cancer Research), a great honor and opportunity.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO DO RESEARCH ON PANCREATIC CANCER?

It all started a little by chance or by destiny. I arrived in Verona in 2014, as a winner of a PhD scholarship and I started working with in vitro models of pancreatic cancer, one of the most lethal among malignant neoplasms. Confronting this reality every day, I realized that there is still a lot to do to find a cure and give patients a perspective on life. This is the reason why I decided to work and do research on pancreatic cancer: my passion for research and my tenacity led me to strongly believe that pancreatic cancer can be defeated.

WHAT IS YOUR RESEARCH ABOUT?

I worked on establishing and characterizing three-dimensional models, called organoids, of pancreatic cancer. This research is part of an important international initiative in which we participate alongside Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, called the Human Cancer Model Initiative. It is a consortium that aims to make tumor organoids derived from various lesions (pancreatic, breast, colon and lung cancer) available to the scientific community.

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM YOUR RESEARCH  ON ORGANOIDS?

First of all, this research has made it possible to generate a large number of three-dimensional models from pancreatic cancer patients, giving the opportunity to establish organoids from different stages of the disease. This has allowed us to characterize them at the molecular and histopathological level and to understand how they are valid and innovative models for the study of the disease.

WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF USING THIS MODEL?

Organoids represent a major advance in personalized cancer medicine. Most patients with ductal adenocarcinoma of the pancreas die from the disease because there are currently no effective treatments. Through the systematic analysis of three-dimensional ductal models of the pancreas, we are trying to identify new therapeutic targets that will help us take an important step forward in the treatment of the disease.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO BE PART OF THE IPCC?

Being part of the Italian Pancreatic Cancer Community is an important opportunity for people like me who have been working on pancreatic cancer for many years. In fact, it offers the opportunity to interact and collaborate with other centers of excellence (national and international) which, like ours, have been working for years on  making progress in the study of pancreatic cancer.

WHEN YOU ARE NOT IN YOUR LAB WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO? 

Work takes up most of my day, but I manage in any way to carve out spaces to cultivate my passions. In my free time I like to cook, because it helps to relax and at the same time gives me satisfaction, especially when I cook for others. I also like to go running and do physical activity in general.