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Research, diffusion, investment. The importance of synergy in Italy’s biomedical sector: interview with Daniela Taverna, Università di Torino

Daniela Taverna, Professor of Molecular Biology at Università di Torino, is one of the winners of the IPA Award at EXPO Dubai 2020 for her project on chimeric complexes and their therapeutic applications in the treatment of cancer and metastases. For more than 30 years, Daniela Taverna has been involved in research on neoplastic progression and the role of microRNAs in the metastatic phase of cancer.   

An increase in new cancer cases is expected in Italy. In the latest update of 27 January 2023 by AIRC and AIRTUM – Associazione Italiana Registri Tumori (Italian Association of Cancer Registries), the Italian territory shows an increase in new cancer diagnoses of 1.4% for men and 0.7% for women in 2022 compared to 2020. In figures, this corresponds to around 391,000 new cases (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer). This is an important signal that, together with the parameter of cancer survival – which is increasing in Italy – leads to an equally necessary reflection: the need to invest in research. Enabling research laboratories to translate their studies into concrete applications is a key step in combating the increase and progression of cancer.  

The biomedical sector is one that requires significant investment to cover the cost of machines, instruments and bureaucracy. For this very reason, it is good that such an economic decision is backed up by support in the form of dissemination: providing good information, disseminating it. It is necessary to reach all sections of the population: from children to adults, from those who work in the sector to those who work in other professions. But how can research, investment and dissemination go hand in hand? And what is the current scenario? And the future? 

Good morning, Daniela, and thank you for your time. The chimeric complex you have patented stems from the need to address the challenge of developing a targeted therapy to counteract the side effects of cancer cells. With an estimated increase in the number of cases to 29.5 million by 2040, how is your research progressing? And what is the updated scenario today?  

The construct and the tests carried out in vitro – and at the level of preclinical research in mice – are quite advanced and have shown promising results. The use of this chimeric complex shows a reduction in metastasis in animals. I can only imagine the use of such molecules in 2040. But how do we get there? This is the translational part. At the moment, everything is being tested in the laboratory and the molecules are not yet ready for clinical trials.  Even though there is a lot of interest from the investment world, we are always a bit stuck, waiting for someone to invest in the technology. We are always talking about large sums of money, so we are not yet as exposed to the risk of focusing on the implementation of such a technology. What I can say is that I certainly can’t see it being used in individuals without chemotherapy or immunotherapy. 

What is the ‘industrial’ challenge you set yourselves when you started this research project and what is your goal?  

We started with basic, non-translational research. However, we then got evidence of interesting insights from these ‘targets’ and slowly moved on to studying and developing the chimeric complex. But I can say that we started down this path with little ambition, because it was not really ‘ours’, or at least not the starting point from which we started our research. However, this challenge has borne some interesting initial fruit: just think of EXPO 2020. Immediately after Dubai, we were contacted by investors who then reconsidered all our plans, although unfortunately they were not prepared to invest so much in the world of RNA for the time being. The market is a little reluctant to make this kind of investment: RNA has only developed significantly in the last few years. In my opinion, 10 years from now, this will be felt very strongly.   

Let’s dwell for a moment on the 10-year transition you mentioned earlier. That is long enough to get feedback on the real interest in these technologies. What can be done to shorten this 10-year waiting period so that these technologies can be adopted more quickly by the market? 

With more resources, more accurate and consistent studies could be offered. However, in my opinion, investors interested in the medical field will take notice and become really interested when there is a lot of literature on the subject: and I think it will take some time before there is a large archive of literature on the application of RNA therapies. Papers will come out in 3-4 years. But I can say that a “fuller literature box” would give investors more willingness and comfort to explore these applications. Then I also think that a lot of work should be done on dissemination at a general and population level. It is important that the whole of society understands what RNA is, what studies are going on and how RNAs can be used from a therapeutic point of view. In this way, you are not only providing information, but you are also reaching out to all those investors who do not work strictly in the biomedical field and/or, on the other hand, by highlighting the spin-offs and the interest at the macro level – the population level. 

The technology is mainly used for solid and metastatic tumours. Have there been any new developments in this area? Have new application horizons opened up since the first patent was filed in September 2019?  

We have focused on solid tumours because that is the focus of our research. However, there is a lot of interest in the potential of the chimeric complex used in big killers: think of pancreatic cancer or lung cancer, for example. Although there are no obvious applications yet, at this stage we can say that we are working on a broad project rather than one with a specific application. 

What did it mean for your research team to participate in the IPA and to receive the award in a context such as the Dubai EXPO? And more generally, what value do you think such events have for Italian research? What more do you think can be done in this area to support research teams in the creation of new companies/spin-offs?   

Participating in initiatives such as IPA has a very high value for me. Basically, and I am referring to our experience, for four reasons. The first is that it allows you to disseminate a lot of information. Going to an EXPO means presenting yourself to the most diverse communities: you go beyond your own sector. It is therefore necessary that these moments and synergies are reported by more and more journalists, who document and spread this news. The second reason is that being at the EXPO allowed us to see what we were doing internally. The different departments, ours in primis, realised that a translational step was and is possible. In fact, it is a recognition – hence the third point. It signals that the technology has been licensed, that it has received grants and that it has also been seen and presented (and in this case rewarded) on several occasions. This is a very high and interesting value to bring to the various trade fairs you attend. Finally, fourth point, I can say that these events are real opportunities. For everyone, but especially for young researchers. In the case of the University of Turin, I was the leader, but other projects had leaders and very young teams who have to value these stages in their human and professional life. 

What impact has the project had after the IPA? What has been implemented in your technology thanks to the award?   

A lot of additional interest, but not really concrete opportunities. Italy is very slow in the biomedical sector, so I would say we are on schedule. The clinical trial is really very expensive in many ways: in terms of investment, but also in terms of documentation and bureaucracy.  

Knowledge Share Platform: How did you find out about the platform? What role did and does the KSS platform play in the area of research and technology transfer at your university?  

Knowledge Share is very important both in its role as a platform for valorisation and also for dissemination. Italy should invest much more in this sense. Bring research to everyone, starting with the education of children: make them passionate about research. Unfortunately, today, given the fragile economic situation, people try to make an immediate profit. People are often looking for jobs that will bring (even substantial) profits in the shortest possible time. But we need to make our young people understand that they should also try something riskier, but which – with the right timing – can lead to really impactful and constructive results and spin-offs. I think we need more dialogue and more synergy, even within the institutions themselves. When I talk to colleagues from economics and law, I realise how little we know about each other. Everything is very siloed. 

What are the plans for the future of this project: roadmap to be followed and milestones to be reached? Who should be contacted?   

These are the very first steps: improve the molecule, test it and then move on to endogenous patients. The molecule needs to be stabilised before it can be used in patients. For example, part of the IPA Award was invested in a mission to the US, where we were able to stabilise the chimeric complex. The next step would be to extend the preclinical analysis to other tumour types, but this is very expensive. Finally, we would have to use the compounds (our compounds) in mice that develop endogenous tumours to see if these developments are really possible. 

What kind of support do you expect from the Knowledge Share team in the course of the research valorisation process?   

It would be great to have a team that is the interface between our lab and both the popularisation world (journalists) and the investment world. Perhaps with events between those who do research, those who popularise and those who invest. It would be interesting to be able to do this on a regular basis: every three months, for example, to meet and present the small advances that have been made. On these occasions, the research teams could present the spin-offs and what they foresee (or would like to foresee) for the near future; in other words, to ask what they need and to understand who is interested in providing it. In this sense, and for our project, I think we lack the knowledge to get Big Pharma to invest in this sector. 

As a researcher, what approach would you expect from the company? If you were an entrepreneur, what would you expect in the field of research?   

In the field of oncology, there is an infinite space. A lot of people get cured, but unfortunately a lot of people don’t. I would try to use these platforms, such as Knowledge Share, to bring research and industry closer together. I think it is also a question of collaboration. As a university teacher, I need to be accompanied by someone who knows how to work in the development of a project: as an entrepreneur who does not know how to do this job, I need to be accompanied by someone who knows how to manage and have an overview in this sense. It is essential to bridge the gap between the workshop and the market.   

To know more about Daniela Taverna’s project: CHIMERIC COMPLEX AND ITS THERAPEUTIC APPLICATIONS IN CANCER AND METASTASIS TREATMENT | Knowledgeshare (knowledge-share.eu)