Italian researchers optimistic on medical breakthroughs despite cuts in funding

Despite the cuts to scientific research over recent years in Italy, there have been some notable advances in cancer research and robotics in recent months


Despite Italy’s recent cuts in scientific research and the so-called brain drain that has cast a shadow over growth prospects for the peninsula, the country has seen some notable advances in cancer research and robotics in recent months.

At Milan's renowned San Raffaele University and Research Hospital, a breakthrough in the search for blood cancer cures that may also fight other cancers is inspiring optimism among some doctors. Dr. Chiara Bonini, head of the experimental hematology unit at San Raffaele University and Research Hospital, and her team have contributed to the global buzz surrounding T-cell therapy, which involves engineering the patient’s immune system to fight cancer.

Bonini's team has found a way to track the T-cells that can last longest in the immune system, which they believe may lead to creating a drug that can last through a patient’s lifetime and prevent cancer from returning.

"I have to say, the results are really, really promising," Bonini told

While Bonini said it’s difficult in Italy and many other countries to obtain funding for such research, she remains optimistic about the recent advances in immunotherapy that her team has discovered.

"I love my work,” she said. “I feel it's a privilege to do this work and I feel really lucky to be in the field in these years."  

The remission rates in patients that have enrolled in Bonini’s trials have been promising, but she is waiting to see if the link between immunotherapy and the results are directly linked.

South of Milan, at the Superior School of Sant’Anna in Pisa, Dr. Debora Angeloni, a professor of molecular biology, has discovered that the protein MICAL2 may help cancer cells spread and metastasize. Angeloni said effectively targeting MICAL2 could contain tumors and prevent it from spreading.

While Angeloni said there wasn’t a “wow” moment during her investigation, she said she is thrilled about the potential implications her discovery may have in the fight against cancer. Her dedication to the field has led her as far as outer space, which sees her studying the effects of microgravity on the body. She concluded that the aging process is expedited in outer space, and has received recognition for her research samples on the International Space station. She is hopeful that her work on cells in space can translate to address the effects of aging on earth.

Angeloni also said she sees a connection between her work on cancer and cells in space.

“Space is an extreme environment, and studying a biological system in one extreme environment is a little bit like studying a diseased cell,” she told

On another Sant' Anna campus, outside Pisa, a team of young researchers has created a bionic finger, which allows patients with prosthetic arms to feel and touch texture. When the sensors in the finger run over surfaces, they send signals to the brain via the nerves that then trigger tactile sensation.

"We are reconnecting something that is not connected to the brain," said Dr. Calogero Oddo, an assistant professor of biorobotics who is spearheading the project with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. "Without our touch, we cannot manipulate finely, but also you perceive the robotic hand as not part of your body. Instead, if you have a sense of touch, you perceive better and accept better the device that helps you."

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The current model of the bionic finger can distinguish between rough and smooth surfaces. Oddo and his team said the end goal is to make the finger so sensitive that it can distinguish subtleties— like denim and silk. Work remains, too, on whether this bionic finger can be integrated into a hand and used constantly. But right now, the results look promising.

While the researchers know that they need to keep producing results as well as continue the never-ending search for funding, it’s a race against time in many ways. In one respect, the clock is ticking for patients waiting to benefit from the results of their research in terms of cures and relief, but for the researchers themselves, it's also a race in the hyper-competitive world of medical research to be first in their fields.

Amy Kellogg currently serves as a Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent based in Milan, Italy. She joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999 as a Moscow-based correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: @amykelloggfox