Head and neck cancer

Dr Orazio Vittorio: copper as a therapeutic target in brain cancer

Wednesday, 18 Apr 2018

Challenge: can you describe the aim of your research in 10 words?
Increasing our knowledge of tumour biology to better target cancer.

What have you discovered in this area so far?
I have discovered that cancer cells, such as neuroblastoma and glioblastoma, need more copper to grow than normal cells do. Drugs that reduce the uptake of copper into cancer cells inhibit their growth.

Copper and cancer cells: what else do we know about this?
Due to strong clinical evidence that copper levels are significantly elevated in a wide range of tumours, copper is emerging as an attractive target for designing novel therapeutics. Copper is an essential component of cellular processes and is required for at least three phenomena characteristic of cancer progression: endless proliferation, angiogenesis and metastasis.

What aspect of your research excites you the most?
So far there are only a few studies on the activity of copper in cancer progression. We still need to understand why copper is so important for cancer cells. The potential to make novel discoveries that can advance this area of research is very exciting. My current research will bring new knowledge and fundamental understanding of the biology of copper in neuroblastoma and glioblastoma, as well as provide new strategies for the treatment of these diseases.

What is your research Holy Grail – the one thing you’d like to achieve?
The discovery of effective and less toxic drugs to cure children with cancer is the goal of my research.

How far is some of your work from impacting patient care?
The thing I like most about my research is that it is multidisciplinary. This means I’m working in collaboration with other groups, all looking at different ways to exploit the high copper dependency of cancer cells. For example, we’re developing imaging techniques to monitor variations in copper levels in patients as a diagnostic tool for tracking cancer metastasis. And I’m also working with nutritionists and dieticians to study the effect of a low copper diet on cancer patients. So, all these different approaches give me hope that in five years’ time my work could have a real impact on patient care.

What is your biggest research hurdle?
Our work isn’t easy because we’re looking for something unknown…until we find it. My biggest research hurdle is time. Research is time consuming, but when I walk through the hospital and see the children fighting cancer, I’m really driven to find a way to speed things up.

Who has inspired you in work or life?
I’ve had the opportunity to work with amazing scientists all over the world during my career and I learned from each of them. However, the thing that most inspired me was when I was diagnosed with cancer myself. I was in the last year of my PhD (2009) when I was diagnosed with kidney cancer. This totally changed my work and my life in so many ways.

How do you maintain work-life balance – or doesn’t it exist?
Being a scientist isn’t just work, it’s a lifestyle. I can’t separate my private life from my work life. I’m married and am lucky to have two beautiful children. I love spending time with my family and I do my best to dedicate time to them. But I don’t deny that while I’m watching my son playing soccer with his team, I’m thinking about the experiments the next day. Or that when I’m on holidays, I read scientific papers on the beach to relax. What’s important is that I’m happy with that, and my family accepts it because it’s part of me.

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