Prostate cancer: Conteduca researcher among the best in the world

The Italian scientist Vincenza Conteduca from Romagnolo Institute for the Study of Tumors won the fourth Merit Award Conquer Cancer by ASCO. He has worked in research institutes in London, New York and Boston.

vincenza conteduca carcinoma prostatico

The Merit Award Conquer Cancer is a prestigious worldwide recognition that the American Society of Clinical Oncology(ASCO), an international organization representing physicians from all sub-specialities of oncology, awards young researchers from around the world who have distinguished for advances in cancer research. In the shortlist of 164 researchers from around the worldwho will receive the Merit Awards during the Asco International Congress scheduled from 4 to 8 June in virtual mode, there is Dr. Vincenza Conteduca, researcher and medical director of the Romagna Institute for the Study of Tumors “Dino Amadori” - IRST IRCCS of Meldola. The subject of the study was research conducted on patients with advanced prostate cancer undergoing hormonal treatments with second-generation drugs. The Merit Award Conquer Cancer award is rarely awarded more than once to the same researcher, but the Italian scientist is the exception that proves the rule: for her this year is the fourth consecutive award, the first in 2017.

Born in Barletta, on 1981, Vincenza Conteduca, after graduating in Medicine and Surgery at the University of Bari, worked at some of the most important research institutes in the world: the Institute of Cancer Research in London, the Weill Cornell Medicine of Cornell University in New York and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of Harvard Medical School, in Boston. 

We know better who is the award-winning Italian researcher who in addition to having obtained the Merit Award Conquer Cancer, on 2017 it was also awarded the "Best Fellowship Europe" fromEuropean Society for Medical Oncology

Dr. Vincenza Conteduca

This is the fourth international award. What does it represent for you and for the Italian scientific research at the international level?

Each year, receiving the ASCO Merit Award represents a pleasant surprise and a great satisfaction both personally and on the part of my entire group of urological cancers of theRomagnolo Institute for the Study of Tumors of Meldola. The Merit Award is one of the most prestigious awards in the world and a milestone not so much for the individual but for his entire research group. It is a source of great pride for the whole country and we hope it is a good omen that Research in Italy will become a priority capable of making our nation shine more and more on the international stage of oncology.

The subject of the study was research conducted on patients with advanced prostate cancer undergoing hormonal treatments with second-generation drugs. Specifically, what is it about?

The aim of the research presented at the International Congress of Oncology this year was to study the "liquid biopsy" or the molecular alterations present in the blood of patients suffering from prostate cancer treated with second-generation hormone therapies such as abiraterone and enzalutamide. In particular, the study aimed to associate the amount of tumour DNA in the plasma of patients before starting therapy with the possible incidence of thromboembolism. The tumour DNA in the blood extracted and analyzed with modern DNA sequencing techniques made it possible to identify patients at risk of developing thrombotic events. 

What emerged?

The research project studied 180 Italian patients who presented with thrombosis and / or pulmonary embolism in about 17% of cases. However, all patients who experienced thrombotic events were able to continue hormone treatment with adequate anticoagulant therapy without reporting severe adverse events. Such work represents the first prospective study that demonstrated the association between circulating tumour DNA and thrombosis. Certainly, further studies are needed to confirm these pieces of evidence but at the moment it provides further confirmation on the usefulness of the molecular approach for better management of cancer patients in terms of both survival and quality of life.

This year's award is a further milestone in a scientific journey that began years ago. How was it born?

The award actually represents one of the various stages of the long scientific path undertaken for over 8 years by the research group of urological tumours at IRST which has always had as its primary objective the study of the genetic heritage, mainly using plasma therefore in a simple and non-invasive way. In subjects suffering from prostate cancer, we first analyzed the alterations of the androgen receptor to try to select the treatment of patients between chemotherapy versus hormone therapy. We then quantified the fraction of DNA released into the blood by cancer cells, correlating it with survival and response to therapies. Finally, in this latest research project presented at ASCO 2021, we have associated all the previous discoveries with some side effects that can sometimes appear in cancer patients while they are taking antineoplastic therapy, such as thromboembolic events. Therefore, in recent years all our projects have been built on the evidence of previous works, increasingly trying to combine laboratory and clinical activities at the service of patients. 

The importance of research clinical as the driving force of personalized medicine for the patient: treating a tumour on the basis of the molecular characteristics of the patient using specific drugs. The new weapons like immuno-oncology and molecularly targeted therapies have already changed the natural history of many neoplasms. Is this the direction of scientific research for the future? 

In recent years, the real revolution in the world of research in general, not only in oncology, is precision medicine, aimed at preventing or detecting any disease as early as possible and providing the most appropriate means to treat it. There is now increasing talk of "target therapy" or "targeted" therapy - a neologism derived from the English target, ie target - on the basis of which we want to focus on the pathogenetic mechanisms of the disease and then take good aim to correct it with the most appropriate therapeutic agent and, certainly, immunotherapy and molecularly targeted drugs represent the most innovative therapeutic options that are leading to encouraging results in all neoplasms. In addition to the introduction of these "targeted" drugs, "precision medicine" evaluates all the characteristics of the individual patient, including genetics, to offer him a truly calibrated tailor-made treatment. In the next few years, a hyper-specialized global approach to the patient will be essential to achieve the personalization of therapies with an increase in the effectiveness of therapies and a reduction in toxicity.

The study, thanks to which it received the fourth Merit Award, was also carried out in collaboration with colleagues from the University College London Cancer Institute in London and Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston. You have an Italian background but have worked in large research institutes abroad. What are the main differences in research between Italy and abroad? How important is it from a professional point of view to work with an international team and “export” one's knowledge and skills?

The study is the result of an intense work carried out both within my Institute of Meldola able to involve a large multidisciplinary team including oncologists, cardiologists, radiologists, biologists, biostatisticians, and in collaboration with the most important international research centres. In recent years, I have had the opportunity to work with the most prestigious international institutes in the field of cancer research with which we still have active and fruitful collaborations. The discussion with other colleagues, both nationally and internationally, always represents, in my little experience, an undisputed personal and professional growth, above all because it allows you to keep alive a healthy spirit of competition, always open your mind to new "inputs. ”Scientific and to find the right way to validate our ideas. The research experience outside Italy undoubtedly it teaches the importance of meritocracy which does not always excel in our country.

The Covid19 pandemic has shown how fundamental (investing) scientific research is. What is your message?

The Covid19 pandemic has set everyone in front of a sense of helplessness and in some cases, inevitability, but at the same time, it has taught us that the only winning strategy for a country today is to invest in health and Research. The anti-covid vaccines produced in such a short time and with excellent results are the irrefutable testimony of the usefulness of Research in the life of all of us.

Its activity also takes place in the clinical setting in the hospital. In the first 5 months of 2020, there was a collapse in cancer screening due to the pandemic: in fact, 1.4 million fewer tests for prevention carried out compared to the same period in 2019. (Source AIOM). Delays in check-ups mean a clear reduction in new cancer diagnoses. Have you noticed this decrease in screening in the hospital where you work? What do you think?

Figures of the first months of the covid19 pandemic in 2020 regarding the drastic reduction of screening exams at a national level are dramatic and unfortunately make us fully understand all the problems also “indirectly” linked to the pandemic. However, these numbers should always be remembered - regardless of pandemics - because they impressively underline the importance of prevention as a winning weapon in the fight against cancer.

Let me finish the interview with one more question: What is your next challenge?

Keep going with the translational research trying to extend the studies in the early stages of prostate cancer in order to intervene promptly trying to avoid/slow down the evolution of the disease towards the most advanced stages. Furthermore, another challenge that all researchers share at this time is the identification of potential biomarkers capable of predicting the response to new therapies characterized by innovative mechanisms of action, always with a view to personalizing treatments.

The study on patients suffering from advanced prostate cancer undergoing hormonal treatments with second-generation drugs, the first in the world on the association between circulating tumour DNA and thrombosis, will be presented at the ASCO International Congress scheduled from 4 to 8 June.

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