Development and expansion of the IFOM-IEO campus

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Published: 9 Oct 2012
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Prof Marco Foiani – University of Milan, Italy and Scientific Director IFOM

Dr Marco Foiani, director of IFOM talks with ecancer about their progress in molecular research and expansion of the molecular cancer research institute to countries outside of Europe.

ESMO 2012, Vienna, Austria


Development and expansion of the IFOM-IEO campus


Professor Marco Foiani – University of Milan, Italy and Scientific Director IFOM



Professor Foiani, you’re the Director of IFOM, can you tell us a little bit about IFOM?


IFOM is a molecular oncology institute supported by the Italian Foundation for Cancer Research. The main headquarters is in Milan but we have an outstation in Turin and more recently we opened a joint research laboratory in Asia and in particular with A*STAR in Singapore and with NCBS and Instem in Bangalore in India. The next feature we are planning a similar operation in Japan.


So why are you expanding outside Italy?


Being an Italian institution doesn’t mean restricting to Italians, to Italy. In fact, IFOM have a very strong commitment towards internationalisation. Already now we have more than 30% of our scientists which are non-Italians; I’d like to say that the Asian operation has been very successful already because we can exchange technologies and people with these Asian institutions. Moreover, we have been successful in recruiting PhD and post-docs from Asian countries which has been very good for our institute. I’d like to add that we really want to improve multidisciplinary approaches in IFOM and the Asian operation is very instrumental also for this proposal.


Can you tell me a little bit about the science in IFOM, how it’s set up?


IFOM is a molecular oncology institute somewhat similar to a Cancer Research UK institute. We have scientists working on fundamental questions like cell biology, signal induction and chromosomal biology. Also groups working on drug repositioning and pharmacogenomics studies. We also have a very strong interaction with a hospital in Milan, the European Institute of Oncology.


So you’re an expert in genome instability, how is this related to cancer?


Genome instability is a trigger for cancer and certain development and it’s influencing also the relapse process. Cancer cells are able to bypass the chemotherapy effect and apoptosis thanks to genome instability. However, until a few years ago genome instability was considered a sort of problem to deal with whilst treating the cells with anti-cancer drugs. Nowadays, it’s becoming more clear that genome instability is a sort of opportunity for the cure, let’s say a sort of Achilles’ heel of the tumour. The new concept derived by the synthetic lethal pharmacologic approach will certainly open new opportunities for cancer therapy, PARP inhibitors is just an example. So the idea will be to combine the right drug with the specific repair defect of the tumour cells. That’s also an opportunity for all drugs because most of all drugs, most anti-cancer drugs in fact, directly or indirectly challenge the genome. Therefore, the idea will be that in the near future it should be more easy to combine drugs and mutations affecting repair pathways in order to improve the efficacy of these old drugs.


So specifically what is your lab working on?


Most of my lab is working on a key fundamental aspect of chromosome dynamics and particularly with the DNA damage response pathway which is very important to supress tumours. More recently, we try to understand why aging cells become genetically unstable. We know that aging cells are more prone to become cancer cells but it’s not clear why the genetic instability occurs in old cells. So this is our main interest at the moment and we would like to give our contribution also and try to see whether pharmacologically we can rescue this problem in old cells.


So cancer is a disease of aging?


Yes, absolutely.


And how do you see cancer research shaping up in the future?


Well I think there are still fundamental aspects of the tumour biology which are not clearly understood. If we want to cure tumours we need to know tumours well. For instance, why do stem cells resist chemotherapy? How come that we can cure very well testicular cancer with platinum derivatives but not other types of cancers? So I strongly feel that the answers to these problems, to these questions, will come from studies aimed at defining more in detail the molecular processes dealing with DNA damage response, for instance, as well.


So you see it as curiosity driven?


Certainly this is part of the story. My perception is that we need to improve the integration between basic and translational science. However, rather than pushing basic scientists into the translational field, which I don’t think is going to work and it’s not working really, I feel that we should improve and stimulate the formation of mixed teams between basic scientists and translational and clinical researchers. Not only, but since the technology is becoming very demanding, we might need also to integrate in these teams engineers and mathematicians so one way would be to have small teams, curiosity driven, very interactive and multidisciplinary. That would be…


But there’s a PhD programme in your institute, isn’t there? Does this go anywhere toward preparing people to do this?


Yes, we have the European School of Molecular Medicine which is running in a PhD school for the entire IFOM-IEO campus and every year we have more than 250 applicants from different parts of the world and we have a PhD programme in molecular oncology but also in nano-medicine, bioinformatics and so clearly…


So it’s already multidisciplinary?


Yes, yes.


OK. Thank you.