Dr Orazio Vittorio

Targeting copper homeostasis as a therapeutic strategy for neuroblastoma

Orazio is a Project Leader at the Children’s Cancer Institute, University of New South Wales. He completed his PhD in Oncology at the University of Pisa in February 2011, during which he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. ‘I was lucky the tumour was found when it was small, so my chances of survival were good,’ he says. ‘It gave me more reasons to put all my efforts into cancer research. In 2011 I became a father and decided to focus my research in finding better cures for childhood tumours like neuroblastoma. Children are our future!’

Orazio joined the University of New South Wales in 2013. Here, he was awarded a Vice Chancellor’s Postdoc Research Fellowship to conduct research at the Children's Cancer Institute of Australia under the mentorship of Professor Maria Kavallaris.

In the same year, he was awarded the CINSW Kids’ Cancer Project Award for Outstanding Cancer Research. Successively, he was awarded a highly competitive CINSW Early Career Fellowship (2014-2016) and a CINSW Career Development Fellowship (2017-2019) to develop his career. Orazio has used his funding to expand his research and build a multidisciplinary group composed of biologists, oncologists and chemists, and has built a network of international collaboration between oncologists from the Sydney Children’s Hospital, biologists from Children’s Cancer Institute, and chemists from the Leibniz Institute in Germany.

He has extensive experience in cancer biology, molecular biology and nanomedicine, and his recent investigations are focused on understanding the role of copper metabolism/homeostasis in cancer (Neuroblastoma and Glioma).

THE RESEARCH

Neuroblastoma is an aggressive childhood cancer for which survival rates are poor, despite the use of intensive therapy. In his current research Orazio aims to study and develop drugs that target neuroblastoma cells, and which have fewer side effects than conventional chemotherapies.

In particular, he aims to target copper in cancer cells. Neuroblastoma tumours contain high levels of copper compared to normal cells, so Orazio has developed a compound (dextran-catechin) which can kill cancer cells with high copper levels and is less toxic than chemotherapy treatments.

‘My project will contribute knowledge to neuroblastoma biology and help develop new, targeted treatments for tumours whose growth depends on copper,’ says Orazio. ‘We aim to establish a therapeutic strategy to increase survival rates and improve the quality of life of patients.’

Quality of life is a huge issue for survivors, he adds. The survival rate of neuroblastoma patients is about 50%, and these people must deal with short and long-term side effects of treatment for the rest of their lives, including increased risk of heart disease.

THE IMPORTANCE OF FUNDING

Orazio is fully aware of how difficult it is for early-career researchers to get grants, and offers them this advice: ‘Be strong, believe in your projects, have a passion for science, a natural curiosity and be a good team player. We need to try and try again until we succeed.’

He extends thanks to donors and others working on behalf of Cure Cancer Australia,

Orazio is co-funded by Cure Cancer Australia and Cancer Australia, supported by Sydney Airport.

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