Dr Luca Magnani

Research fellow at the Department of Surgery and Cancer, Imperial College London

Guest blogger for FCDO Editorial

Part of FCDO Outreach

3rd February 2017 London, UK

Cancer research: Together we can achieve so much more

On World Cancer Day, Italian cancer researcher Dr Luca Magnani tells us about how close European collaboration helped bring about a recent discovery.

What does it mean being a cancer scientist in 2017? It means having access to incredible technologies. It means working side by side with some of the best scientists alive. It means having patients as partners, as they progressively become more involved in research.

It also means collaborating with international partners because this is crucial to finding better treatments for this terrible disease, and ensuring we have more cancer survivors, and fewer cancer deaths.

I want to tell you the story of our last scientific breakthrough and how it was truly a European affair.

Just last week, we published research revealing why commonly used breast cancer drugs, called aromatase inhibitors, stop working in some patients. Our study, published in the journal Nature Genetics, found that breast cancer tumours evolve to make their own ‘fuel’, rendering the treatments useless. This causes the cancer to come back.

However our crucial finding opens avenues for offering patients different, and hopefully better, treatment options if their cancer returns.

I am an Italian citizen, and have been living and working in the UK since 2013. But my main collaborators are a team of Italian scientists based in Milan who have trained in many countries.

In their Milan lab – the European Institute of Oncology – the team decided quite some time ago to take a second sample, or biopsy, of the tumour if a patient’s cancer returned. This procedure, although sounding straight-forward, is rather difficult. For example, in the UK, doctors usually only take a sample when the cancer is first diagnosed – they rarely take a second sample when the cancer comes back.

However, this second sample was central to our study, as it allowed us to investigate how the tumour evolved before and after treatment. These samples from Italy were the key to our discovery. They enabled our highly international team (including international students, technicians, doctors and patients) to produce unequivocal data showing how breast cancer tumours evolve to become resistant to drugs, and how the choice of treatment can dramatically influence tumour evolution. Our team is now working on developing a test to identify when a cancer has evolved, with the hope of helping doctors making better decisions during treatment.

It has been great working so closely with our European friends, because without them we would not have accessed the biopsies from patients, which proved so crucial to this discovery. European collaborations work so well because we are easily able to share and exchange scientific samples, data and techniques. They are and will continue to be vital if we are to continue this important work in the future.

As a scientist, we are “cursed” with incurable optimism. We believe the world can get better, we believe we can cure cancer, we believe we can change the course of climate change. As a scientist, I believe in facts and data, and our work demonstrates far better than any words about how together we can achieve so much more.