Paola Neri, MD, PhD is the 2021 recipient of the Ken Anderson Young Investigator Award for basic and translational research, which was established by IMS to honor the seminal contributions of Professor Ken Anderson’s approach to “bench to bedside” translational research. Her research focuses on elucidating the mechanisms driving intrinsic and acquired drug resistance in myeloma by integrative epigenomic and genomic parameters, as well identifying new druggable dependencies in the disease. Paola is a former trainee of Ken Anderson and has adopted her mentor’s bench to bedside approach with an added element: ‘Bench to Bedside and Bedside to Bench.’
Paola received her medical degree from Magna Græcia University, Catanzaro, Italy in 2000, where she completed her residency in Medical Oncology in 2005. She earned her PhD in Molecular Oncology and Experimental Immunology in 2011. She is now a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine, attending physician in the Hematology division at University of Calgary (Canada) and member of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute (Canada).
What inspired and motivated you to pursue a career in medicine with a focus on basic and translational research?
At a young age, when I was a teenager, I lost my father to cancer. There were not many therapeutic options at that time for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and he lost his battle after few years. At that moment I knew that I wanted to be a medical doctor to take care of people and a researcher to improve the knowledge of blood cancers with the hope of finding one day a cure.
Dr Ken Anderson is a constant inspiration for young and established myeloma doctors and researchers. After your residency in Italy, you pursued a post-doctoral fellowship in the multiple myeloma center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School (Boston, USA) under the mentorship of Drs. Kenneth Anderson and Nikhil Munshi. What did your time in Dr Anderson’s lab and your interaction with him teach you about how to approach research?
I have great memories of that period. I learned so much from Dr Anderson, Dr. Munshi and from the many talented scientists who were part of their labs at that time. Under their mentorships, I fostered my translational research skills in multiple myeloma and, above all, I learned from their examples the impact that basic research may have on patients’ lives. Their deep commitments and complete dedications to myeloma research and patients’ care have been my drive and model since.
Pre-clinical models tested on the bench, far too often fail, when applied to humans in a clinical context. How do you envision implementing the Bedside-to-Bench research process?
Multiple myeloma is characterized by a complex molecular pathogenesis and intra- and inter-tumor heterogeneity. Therefore, access to primary samples is key for our understanding of the disease biology. As such genomic studies performed in primary samples are extremely important for the identification of druggable targets and the delivery of a personalized and tailored therapeutics.
You grew up in a small town of Calabria, a southern Italian region whose wild and untouched natural beauty is often overshadowed by tales of immigration and poor economy. How did growing up there shape you as a person and later as a doctor?
I am very grateful for all the education and training that I have received at Magna Graecia University in Catanzaro, Calabria, as a medical student and oncology fellow. I learned there the meaning of compassion in delivering patient care and developed my passion for myeloma research. Since my early days I realized that talent, commitment and sacrifice are necessary requirements to achieve important goals in life.
Science leaders talk widely about leveraging global knowledge and working together, particularly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Do you currently collaborate often with researchers from other labs and organizations?
Our group has several research collaborations with other laboratories in Canada and abroad. As a community we should all make an effort of working together to share resources, skills and knowledge to advance science.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen in the lab?
Few years ago, by performing ChIP-Seq analysis on primary myeloma cells of a multiple relapsed patient we discovered that this patient had an up-regulation of cyclin D1 due to the presence of t(11;14). At that time, this translocation was not part of our FISH myeloma panel and venetoclax was not approved yet. Based on these preclinical findings the patient had the opportunity to receive therapy with venetoclax, achieving VPGR for almost 4 years. A good example of bench to bedside research.
“Life outside of Myeloma” is a section of our IMW newsletter. Tell us about your life outside work. What are your hobbies?
I love the outdoors. Since I moved to Calgary in Canada, I started to appreciate the beauty of the uncontaminated nature. I really enjoy walking and hiking around the lakes in the Canadian Rockies during the summertime. In addition, my husband and I love “good food”. As such, quite often, we get to spend quality time together cooking fresh and delicious meals to share with family and friends.
Which are the key questions still waiting to be explored in myeloma?
Immunotherapy has recently changed the treatment landscape for a variety of cancers including myeloma. However, responses to immunotherapy are not universal and relapses remain unfortunately frequent. Therefore, as a community we should try to identify the mechanisms mediating this immune tolerance and leading to resistance. In this context, I believe that immunogenomics approaches performed in primary myeloma cells and T cells could help us to explore how the immune system drives drug resistance and may lead to personalized immunotherapy delivery for our MM patients.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Throughout my career I have been committed to academic life and improving patient’s clinical care through dedication to research and high standard medical practice. In ten years, I hope to have the same passion and commitment that I have today and continue my involvement in the translational bench to bedside research to pursue and provide the cure for multiple myeloma.