NEWS » Brain cancer breakthrough by Italian Team

Brain cancer breakthrough by Italian Team

Italians are often at the forefront of medical research but their ground-breaking results are often carried out abroad. The latest breakthrough was the discovery of the genetic alteration at the root of many forms of cancer, by the team led by the Italians Antonio Iavarone and Anna Lasorella at New York’s Columbia University.

New progress in the personalised treatment of cancer was made by the discovery of the mechanism behind an important genetic alteration that causes a large percentage of cancers, including glioblastoma, the most aggressive and lethal type of brain tumour. This discovery will allow the testing of ‘targeted’ treatments to block its development.

Iavarone is lead brain tumour researcher of the American project the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) which catalogued genetic sequences of tumours used, together with complex series of techniques, such as the analysis of Big Data, to achieve the present results published in “Nature”.

Two statistical mathematicians, the researchers from the Università del Sannio in Benevento, Michele Ceccarelli and Stefano Pagnotta, who have often spent research periods in the laboratories at Columbia University, contributed to examining and interpreting the enormous amount of information obtained from the TCGA. Five other Italians, out of a total of about twenty researchers, contributed to this incredible result. 

Glioblastoma is a cancer that affects people of all ages, including children, but is most frequent in those aged between 45 and 70, and has a two-year life expectancy, despite surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The fusion between the two genes FGFR3 and TACC3 was initially identified as the cause of glioblastoma. The mechanism was found with similar frequency (3%) in cancer affecting the lungs, throat, bladder, breast, cervix, head and neck, affecting thousands of new patients every year on a global scale.

The breakthrough is the discovery of how the fusion of FGFR3 and TACC3 generates and develops tumours. To combat the effects of this gene fusion, clinical trials are underway using “target” drugs at the Pitié Salpetrière hospital in Paris, directed by Professor Marc Sanson, co-author of the Iavarone-Lasorella study. Over time, the tumours become resistant to these drugs and continue to grow. Thanks to the new discovery, other drugs can be used to inhibit abnormal mitochondrial behaviour. Results of tests, on cultured cancer cells, and in mice, have shown so far that tumour growth can be stopped. Iavarone said that due to bureaucratic and regulatory issues it has not been possible to easily transfer their clinical trials to Italy, but after the publication of the study in “Nature”, there are also plans to involve the Carlo Besta neurological institute in Milan in the research.   

Giulia Lombardo

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