"My greatest wish for the future is to create something important so that children can be cured and grow into healthy adults"
Interview with Andrea Timpanaro
Andrea Timpanaro is a scientist at Bern University Hospital and this year’s winner of the Childhood Cancer Switzerland sponsorship award. The aim of his innovative PhD project in the research lab of the Department for Pediatric Hematology and Oncology is to develop a new kind of immunotherapy (CAR T cell therapy) for rhabdomyosarcomas. Rhabdomyosarcomas are the most common malignant soft tissue tumours in children and adolescents.
Mr Timpanaro, you specialise in rhabdomyosarcomas in children and adolescents. What exactly does this term mean and what makes these tumour types particularly interesting for basic research?
Rhabdomyosarcomas belong to the group of so-called soft tissue sarcomas. These kind of rare and malignant sarcomas can develop in soft tissue such as muscles, connective tissue, blood and lymphatic vessels, nerves and adipose tissue. In children and adolescents, soft tissue sarcomas account for about 15% of all cancers, with rhabdomyosarcomas being the most common. Soft tissue sarcomas comprise many different subgroups of tumours, and the causes are still unclear. The fact that there is only a small number of patients and that soft tissue tumours do not represent a homogeneous group of tumours makes them particularly difficult to research and treat. However, knowing more about the causes and genetic differences of the various sarcomas can help to improve the current treatment options for young cancer patients.
You were awarded the Childhood Cancer Switzerland sponsorship award for your work. What exactly is your project about?
My research project aims at developing CAR T cells for the treatment of rhabdomyosarcomas. CAR T cell therapy is an immunotherapy in which, to put it simply, human immune cells are genetically modified in such a way that they specifically recognise and fight cancer cells. In this process, defence cells, so-called T-lymphocytes, are isolated from the body, prepared in the laboratory and multiplied in order to inject them back into the patient. CAR T cells are already being used successfully in children with leukaemia. In the laboratory, we are investigating whether this innovative technology is also suitable for treating solid tumours, such as rhabdomyosarcomas. To do this, we have genetically modified T cells so that they recognise a specific target on rhabdomyosarcoma cells, bind to it and in this way fight the cancer very effectively. The initial research results are very promising because we were able to show that these CAR T cells have a high anti-tumour efficacy. If no side effects occur in further trials and the effectiveness of these CAR T cells is confirmed, we can assume that we have developed a promising therapy against rhabdomyosarcomas. However, before it can be officially approved, it still has to be validated in future clinical trials. But I am confident that we are on the right track.
Why is basic research important and to what extent can it contribute to progress in the treatment of these kinds of tumours?
I think that basic research is fundamental for the future of science, in general. Each drug, treatment, cure has to be generated, validated at different steps, and then approved. Regarding rhabdomyosarcomas, some progress has been made in recent decades thanks to chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but metastatic forms of this dreadful cancer are still difficult to treat. CAR T cell therapy is very promising, and I hope that we will be able to successfully apply it in the future to solid tumours as well. Our goal is to develop CAR T cells that are able to treat rhabdomyosarcomas in children and adolescents quickly and efficiently without causing them to relapse. To achieve this, however, basic research depends on sufficient funding. That is why we are very happy about this award and financial support from Childhood Cancer Switzerland.
What motivates you most in your work and what are your wishes for the future?
I am very happy to work at the Clinic of Paediatric Medicine at Bern University Hospital because I am surrounded by children every day. Nevertheless, seeing children suffering from diseases such as cancer also makes me realise again and again how much we still have to improve for them and their future. This is what motivates me the most. And I like being a researcher at heart, because I find it fascinating to elaborate new strategies and to come up with hypotheses to be tested. This is why I always try to do my best in my work. My greatest wish for the future is to create something important so that children can be cured and are given the chance to grow into healthy adults. There is still a long way to go and this goal can only be achieved together, with the help of doctors, researchers and, of course, sponsors.