World Breast Cancer Day is celebrated on 19 October (International Day against breast cancer) with the aim of raising awareness of the disease and promoting access to timely and effective diagnosis, controls and treatments. 

October is the month of prevention for the fight against breast cancer

An important day that is at the center of the month of prevention - October (Breast Cancer Awarennes Month) - with many international events and awareness campaigns. Among the initiatives, the campaign "Pink Ribbon" of the AIRC Foundation for Cancer Research which again this year focuses attention on the urgency of finding new treatments for those who have to face the most aggressive forms, such as the triple negative type, which affects especially at a young age, and metastatic breast cancer.

Cancer research: the role of Italian researchers in Italy and abroad

There are many Italian researchers engaged every day in cancer research to find new treatments, in Italy and abroad. Dr. Ernestina De Francesco is one of them.

The experience of Dr. Ernestina De Francesco from Manchester to Catania

Dr. Ernestina De Francesco

After graduating in Pharmacy at the University of Calabria, he began attending the laboratory of General Pathology and Molecular Oncology, and in those years the great passion for cancer research was born. This was followed by a doctorate and a few years of research in Italy, studying the molecular mechanisms mediated by receptors for hormones and growth factors that induce the progression of breast cancer.

He then left the country, direction The University of Manchester. Under the supervision of Prof. Michael Lisanti and dr. Rob Clarke, carried out a period of research in the prestigious university of the English city, a reference point for oncology.

After four years he had the opportunity to return to Italy, bringing with him an enormous wealth of knowledge and experience, both work and personal.

Dr. Ernestina de Francesco is Group Leader and responsible for the five-year Start-Up Reintegration Grant, supported by the AIRC Foundation, of the Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, of the University of Catania.

(Video provided; music and editing for Journal IHW by NM.)

We caught up with her on the phone and asked her a few questions. 

Dr., you had a research experience at the University of Manchester and now you are back in Catania, thanks to one Start-Up Grant. What did the experience abroad give you and what did it bring to Catania during that period?

I arrived in Manchester thanks to a scholarship funded by AIRC and the European Union and I had the opportunity to work in consortium with the Christie Hospital, an important reference point in the treatment of cancer. I spent four wonderful years there, which represented a fundamental experience for me, to refine my knowledge and for my educational and personal growth. Both me and my partner, who followed me, we were happy immediately. The quality of life was high, the environment was stimulating: we met people from all over the world, from Europe, from Asia. Many have become friends, and have almost replaced the family that was far away for us in those years. I returned to Italy enriched on a human and professional level. 

How did the opportunity to return to Italy come about?

After four years, the call of home was felt. And once again, as it has been throughout my career as a researcher, AIRC took me by the hand. The opportunity came with the Start-Up Grant project, a type of funding that AIRC reserves for talented young researchers who want to return to Italy, after a significant period spent abroad, and open their own research laboratory. I went through a tough selection, which lasted several months, but in the end making it was a great victory and a great satisfaction. In 2019 I moved to Catania, where I am very well. I have put all my enthusiasm into this new project: to create a center of excellence for the treatment of patients with breast cancer and diabetes, for which, at the moment, there is no specific clinical approach. 

The study for the treatment of patients with breast cancer and diabetes

What is it specifically about?

We follow women who, in addition to having cancer, suffer from metabolic imbalances, such as diabetes, obesity, hyperglycemia, which can contribute to making the cancer even more aggressive. This is nearly 20% of all breast cancer patients, and these women are at more than average risk of bad cancer progression. The goal is to block those altered metabolic pathways that favor the onset of inflammation and the formation of metastases. There were complicated moments, due to the pandemic, but we are now gone. It is nice that a reality in southern Italy is able to give an opportunity to many young researchers, Italians and foreigners. Unfortunately, in Italy, with state funding, the blanket is short, but the support of AIRC is always strong. 

AIRC Ernestina De Francesco with her colleagues
Research team of the University of Catania

She left there these days Pink Ribbon campaign, to raise awareness of the importance of supporting research. The claim is "We miss it so much, but there is so much to do" and face of the campaign is Dr. Ernestina De Francesco. The pink ribbon is incomplete, requiring everyone's effort to be fully colored.

What more do we need to do and where are we with breast cancer treatments? 

The most important points to consider are two. The first, that the incidence is, unfortunately, slightly increasing. In Italy, 55,000 women a year fall ill with breast cancer, which remains the most frequent malignancy in women. Therefore, prevention and early diagnosis are fundamental. Screening programs are important, which allow the identification of early stage cancer, but also and above all primary prevention, which is the first tool available to every woman. Second point, this positive: survival 5 years after diagnosis is constantly increasing. In the last 20 years it has gone from 81% to 87%, it is an excellent result but we cannot and must not be satisfied. The quality of life of those who survive must be good, and it is important to study the mechanisms of metastasis, understand and trace the so-called "sleeping cells", which lie 'asleep' for months or years until they wake up, giving rise to metastases . Preventing metastatic spread with personalized approaches is a fundamental goal of our research. 

One last question: do you ever think about going back abroad?

Sometimes I think about it. We have remained very close to Manchester, where we still have many friends who have been our family for years. We also went on holidays there, we go back often. But now I am happy with the project I am carrying out in Catania and I really hope to have great results for cancer patients. 

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