Dr Antonio D’Alessio, oncology resident, is the winner of the European Association for the Study of the Liver’s scholarship
First came Erasmus, actually twice: once in Valencia and then in Brussels. And now London, where he has been living for about two months. Antonio D’Alessio, a 29-year-old doctor in his fourth-year oncology residency school at Humanitas University, has won the grant awarded by the European Association for the Study of the Liver. The grant will enable him to further his studies on liver cancer at Imperial College London. The outcome was not an obvious one, given that the Association offering the scholarship deals with hepatology and this year, rather than giving the award to a hepatologist in the strictest sense of the word, they chose an oncologist working with liver cancer. «It is a great satisfaction to have won this scholarship, as it is very popular and always attracts many participants. I’m also excited about studying in an innovative field such as immunotherapy, as well as in the highly stimulating environment at Imperial College» says D’Alessio, who works under the supervision of Dr David James Pinato, an oncologist and researcher at Imperial College. D’Alessio was guided by his professor, Lorenza Rimassa Director of the Residency School of Medical Oncology at Humanitas University.
“My project – explains D’Alessio – is a translational research project based on a highly innovative study: the use of immunotherapy at an early stage in patients with liver cancer who need to undergo surgery”. Immunotherapy, an established therapy for other types of cancer, has now become a reality for the treatment of liver cancer. This is due to the mechanism which enables the strengthening of the immune system against tumour cells, leading to the achievement of unprecedented results in the fight against cancer. Unfortunately, however, only a minority of patients benefit from this treatment, which is exactly what Dr D’Alessio will be investigating: «We will analyse samples from patients who have started immunotherapy treatment and who have then undergone surgery. This way we will see directly what changes in the tumour tissue after immunotherapy is induced in the tumour tissue and what happened instead to those who did not respond. In addition, we will analyse other biological samples from the patients such as blood, urine and faeces. In particular, we will investigate whether different bacteria in the faeces, the so-called microbiota, are associated with a different response to immunotherapy».
Unlike traditional chemotherapy, which relies on the use of ‘toxic’ substances that kill cells, the immunotherapy treatment relies on the stimulation of the immune system which, once stimulated, reacts and fights the tumour. «This is a completely different approach: in our study, two different immunotherapies are administered three weeks apart. This way the patient undergoes surgery within a month and a half and of course, after surgery, we do a follow-up to see how the situation is evolving. The aim is to be able to reduce recurrences after surgery, which unfortunately are very frequent. Understanding which patients respond to immunotherapy and why is the crucial challenge in the fight against cancer» says D’Alessio.