Cancer Research in Humanitas

Cancer research is one of the main sectors on which Humanitas focuses its activity. Since 2011, the team of scientists at Humanitas hospital use among others, the talent and expertise of a young Italian researcher: Dr. Enrico Lugli. Dr. Lugli is the author of a European cancer research project that has received important international recognition in the last year.

We met with Dr. Lugli to find out more regarding the innovative research being carried out in Humanitas labs as well as his research project specifically.


Dr. Enrico Lugli – Head of Translational Immunology Lab

Who is Dr. Lugli?

Dr. Enrico Lugli, 35 years old, returned to Italy in 2011 thanks to the generosity of Gerry Scotti, the historical face of the campaign 5 × 1000 Humanitas. Over the years, the presenter has “adopted” several young doctors by supporting their projects. Four years ago, Dr. Enrico Lugli was among the four recipients to receive an annual research grant, provided by Mr. Scotti. At the time, Dr. Lugli worked in the United States at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Overseas, he gained specific experience in the field of immunology of cancer that he was able to put to good use in his project entitled “Generation and maintenance of long-lived memory T cells in humans”. The project was recently funded by the European Research Council of the European Commission with 1.5 million Euros for a period of 5 years. Today, Dr. Lugli directs the Laboratory of Translational Immunology at Humanitas, which entails 6 Italian and foreign researchers and uses cutting-edge technology, polychromatic flow cytometry, capable of identifying and characterizing dozens of types of immune cells and their role in the specific anti-tumor response. Dr. Lugli is also Head of the Unit of Flow Cytometry at our institute.


What are the characteristics of the laboratory for Translational Immunology?

“My lab wants to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying the immune response in humans and intends on transferring this knowledge directly to the bedside of oncology. Through interaction with different clinical realities at Humanitas, we want to enhance the immune response against viruses and tumors in subjects with deficiencies of the immune system, including those undergoing chemotherapy or bone marrow transplant.”

Recently, in collaboration with Dr. Luca Castagna, hematologist at Humanitas Cancer Center and Dr. Domenico Mavilio, head of the Laboratory for Clinical and Experimental Immunology, the group focused on how to reconstitute the immune system after a particular type of bone marrow transplant called Haploidentical Stem Cell Transplant, i.e. coming from a partially matched donor.

“This type of transplant – explains Dr. Enrico Lugli – is an integral part of the blood therapy of many malignant tumors such as leukemias and lymphomas and consists of a chemo/radiotherapy followed by transfusion of hematopoietic stem cells. We were able to demonstrate that a particular subpopulation of T cell memory transferred with the marrow of the donor and called “memory stem cells”, or T SCM, plays an essential role in the reconstitution of the immune system. These cells have high growth potential and actively participate in the immune response in the patient and we assume that they also play a protective role in the reappearance of tumor pathology. These results will allow us to begin a clinical trial already in 2016 “. Past studies conducted by Dr. Lugli in the US have in fact shown that T cells with stem-like characteristics lead to tumor regression in preclinical models of disease. Now in Humanitas, the group is trying to identify the molecular mechanisms at the basis of the formation of these T memory lymphocytes in order to generate them in the laboratory and use them one day in specific transplants to promote early reconstruction of the immune system.

The study is an example of translational research, a type of research with which you transfer the results of experiments directly in to a clinical setting.

The work of Dr. Lugli on cancer research has received two major awards between the years 2014 and 2015: the Lorini award and the ERC Starting Grants, an important funding of the European Research Council, both granted to support young promising researchers. The laboratory has also received funding from the Italian Association for Cancer Research, the Cariplo Foundation and the Young Researchers Program of the Ministry of Health.