We need time on our side to beat cancer: there is a simple intuition behind a European project for the early diagnosis of prostate and testicular cancer. Prostate cancer is by far the most common cancer among men and, over the age of 50, affects one in every five cancer patients (19%), while testicular cancer accounts for 12% of cases under the age of 50 (source: Istituto Superiore di Sanità). That means, respectively, 44,000 and 2,300 new cases expected every year in Italy alone (source: Umberto Veronesi Foundation).
The project, "diaRNAgnosis", with a total European funding of 760,000 euro, involves a consortium of universities and companies that will conduct a research study which started in January and will continue for four years. The kick-off event took place a few days ago, during an online presentation meeting with the various partners from their respective countries. DESTINA, coordinator of the project, Nanogetics, and the University of Granada, were connected from Spain. Princes Maxima Center, a pediatric oncology center, was online from the Netherlands. And finally, from Italy, there were the University of Catania and the two members from Trentino: the University of Trento, with the research group led by Michela Denti of the Department of Cellular, Computational and Integrated Biology (Cibio), and Optoi, a company that, since its foundation, has been focused on the production of optical components and smart optical sensors.
The project was funded by the European Commission through the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions within the Research and Innovation Staff Exchange scheme, a category of grants that promotes international and cross-sector collaboration to share knowledge between academia and industry in Europe.
"We know that cancer cells send short messages, like tweets, to other cells. What we do is to intercept these tweets to discover the presence of prostate and testicular cancer from the earliest stages". This is how Michela Denti described the innovative and reliable method developed to detect tumors at the earliest stage. The method is based on the measurement of small RNA molecules (microRNAs) circulating in the blood stream. She explained: "If RNA is the language of cells, microRNAs are the words with which cells, including cancer cells, communicate with each other. These small molecules are 'packaged' in vesicles and are 'sent' by the cells into the blood, like tweets of a limited number of words. We intercept these 'tweets' and measure the quantity of some microRNAs, which we use as markers, ie indicators of the presence of cancer cells from the early stages". The goal is to create a biotechnological device to measure the microRNAs circulating in the blood stream by liquid biopsy, which can be used for cancer diagnosis and prevention.
The project was outlined during the first lockdown period and demonstrates that private and academic research in Trentino maintained its focus on the fight against cancer despite the pandemic. "Sick people and their families must not be forgotten," warned professor Denti. "Because of the health emergency, attention and resources focused on Covid-19. Cancer, rare and chronic diseases and other conditions faded in the background". For lack of places, of means and as a precaution. Denti continued: "If we let the guard down, the situation gets worse and we find ourselves dealing with people with serious conditions and compromised health conditions, with less chances of success in the treatment".
In general, Denti underlines the importance of investing constantly in research: "It is necessary to make investments in peacetime to be ready for action in times of war. In other words, it is necessary to study and continuously develop methods and solutions, to be able to effectively deal with new health crises that may arise in our now global and interconnected world". For example? "Many people today are surprised by the speed with which the Coronavirus vaccines were developed. We should remember that they are largely the result of the research that had been conducted in recent years to fight Sars, the epidemic of the severe acute respiratory syndrome that had spread to the Asian continent, and the Zika virus, and of the innovations implemented in the past 20 years to prepare gene or RNA-based treatments to treat genetic disorders".
At Optoi, president Alfredo Maglione underlines the importance of the exchange of knowledge between university research and the business world: "This company was established in Trento in 1995 as one of the very first technological spin-offs of the Bruno Kessler Foundation. We have maintained a fruitful relationship of scientific collaboration with FBK, specializing in the development of silicon devices. Today we are a point of reference for the industrial sector and the special vehicles industry and, I am proud to say, we are growing internationally in the aerospace and biomedical sectors. Over the years we have built a virtuous partnership with Cibio, a center which is now a department of the University of Trento, that allowed us to develop effective and competitive synergies for innovation. The company has a multidisciplinary team that oversees the creation of innovative solutions that aim to simplify and improve the detection of circulating biomolecules, providing a valid support to medical personnel and the biopharmaceutical sector".