Antonio Giordano (Director of the Sbarro Health Research Organization)

Il genio italiano e le opportunità dell'America: Antonio Giordano incarna l'eccellenza di quando Italia e Stati Uniti si incontrano

Apr 09, 2018 4271 ITA ENG

There are few people who raise the same respect, admiration and fondness in equal measure among both the two large groups to which We the Italians refers: the Italian Americans and the Italians born in Italy whom then emigrated to the United States. While they have a love for Italy in common, they share slightly different visions of our country. This makes it difficult to find people who cross between the two groups while maintaining the same prestige, friendship and success. 

Our guest today is one accomplishes all of this: he is a scientist who was born in Naples, Italy and emigrated to America; is a well respected Italian, a person who is appreciated by all who know him, and a friend of We the Italians. We welcome Antonio Giordano with great pleasure. 

Antonio, you are one of those excellent Italians who hold the name of our country very high, and who in order to do so have a history that inevitably intertwines with the United States. Please tell us something about it 

My father was a doctor and professor of pathological anatomy at the University of Naples. In the course of his professional career he became aware of the need to broaden his horizons and to confront other scientific realities. This is how he began to establish scientific collaborations with colleagues from other countries.

Then, when I told him that I was going to become a doctor, despite being a student, he offered me the opportunity to spend the summer vacation in the United States. 

At the age of seventeen, I became very passionate about the American reality: I learned the language and after specializing in Pathological Anatomy at the University in Trieste, I moved to the USA for a doctorate.  

I have to admit that since graduating, I have always been very focused on my work and the goals I wanted to achieve. 

However, when I look back, I myself am really surprised at the results I achieved. When I left Italy I would never have thought I could build a scientific bridge between Italy and the United States. 

Today, however, I am proud to see the laboratory of the Sbarro Institute collaborate with that of the University of Siena, with the Pascale Institute of Naples and with other prestigious Italian universities. 

Your discovery of genetics that reduce the growth of tumors has made you famous in the world's scientific community and beyond. What is it about?  

I did my doctorate at the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, directed by Nobel Prize winner James D. Watson, one of the fathers of modern genetics and one of the authors of the discovery of DNA's double helix. In those years, made of great rigor and sacrifices, I isolated the RB2/p130 gene, later showing how the same gene, introduced through a retrovirus in some animal models, is able to reduce the growth of tumors.  

In addition, I have identified the direct link between cell cycle regulation and cancer development. More specifically, I have been able to demonstrate that normal cells become neoplastic when oncogenes interact directly with the cyclines, leading to a deregulation of the cell cycle and, consequently, to the onset of the neoplastic phenotype.  

Subsequently, I discovered three important "guardians" of the human genome: CDK9, CDK10 and the NSPs (Novel Structure Proteins), a new protein structure with a potential role in the dynamics of the nucleus during cell division. One particular protein, Isoform NSP5a3a, is highly expressed in the cell lines of some tumors and could turn out to be a very useful tumor marker.  

Tell us something about your organization. Your institute is named after Mario Sbarro, founder of the chain of Italian restaurants, who with his generosity has allowed the creation of your structure. Can you tell us something about him?  

In my years at Cold Spring Harbor I met Mina, the woman who would become my wife and mother of my three children.  

Mario Sbarro, contrary to what is generally said, is not her father; but her neighbor and family friend. I was introduced to him and, for a long time, I went to visit him, explaining my ideas regarding the birth of a scientific research institute.  

Mario Sbarro listened to me. We spoke to each other several times, and he decided to help me financially and providing me with a staff of professionals.  

I have a deep affection for Mario Sbarro and a great gratitude for the trust that he placed in me many years ago. He remains an important person to  me and for the organization that we have created.  

In 1992 I moved to Philadelphia, and in 1993 the Sbarro Institute was born, which later became the Sbarro Health Research Organization, (SHRO): an organization dedicated to biomedical research that, for years, has been offering young and brilliant minds from all over the world the opportunity to realize their dream job.  

Indeed, since 1993 until today, I have had the privilege of training hundreds of students from all over the world. Many come unbelieving, and intimidated: and after a few years, to witness their success in scientific research is a great joy.  

I believe that it is always hard for a young person to leave his or her country, his or her affections, to be able to assert himself or herself in the world of work. Leaving Italy, family, friends and everything that is certain and known always requires great courage. That is why I feel so close to young Italian graduates. I understand their difficulties very well. Many of them write to me, especially from Italy and the South. Young talented people, most often highly specialized, forced to leave.  

Now, if it is true that scientific research is a sector that knows no borders and that mobility is a factor to be taken into account for a researcher, it is equally true that Italy invests in education more than what the country receives in terms of scientific innovation. Despite our excellences, it is clear that we are not able to create an economy equal to that of other European and non-European countries.  

In my opinion, the Italian Government should invest in technology transfer and promote the development of patents to be commercially exploited. This would provide new job opportunities. 

You are from Naples: a Napoli Soccer Club fan (we're not asking you for any forecasts about the championship because we know that you're a superstitious!), and a proud Ambassador of Neapolitanism. How would you describe your bond with your beautiful city? Do you know any other Neapolitans who have been very successful in America?  

I love Naples and I love coming back. My mother and my sister's family live in Naples. There are my dearest affections, my friends of a lifetime, and my roots. Naples is my passion and not only for football. 

There are many successful Italian Americans from Naples, among whom I am pleased to mention the President of our soccer club, Aurelio De Laurentis. 

About Campania and my relationship with its capital, I'd like to spend a few words on the "Land of fires", that is engaging me not only from a work point of view, but also from an emotional one.  

The attempt is to make known the link between the environment polluted by years of illegal spills of toxic waste and the increase of cancer in the population.  

The attempt is also to inform, especially with young people, and to make the general population aware of the environmental and social damage in which we are more or less consciously immersed.  

For over 40 years, the bowels of our "Campania Felix" region have been padded with poisons that re-emerge through the food chain. Ammonium salts, aluminium salts, and lead are just a few of the hundreds of substances found in the earth that generate fetal malformations, but also lymphomas, leukemia, and tumors. 

The story of Vincenzo Cannavacciuolo (one of the last shepherds of the Northern Area of Naples, who, after years of battles against eco-mafia and illegal dumps, was devoured by a tumor at the age of 59) is emblematic in this sense. Even though Vincenzo Cannavacciuolo was not listened to nor heard, he managed to document with photographs and videos the genetic aberrations generated by his sheep: lambs without legs and who were blind. 

As I wrote with Sky journalist Paolo Chiariello in the book "Monnezza di Stato" (State Rubbish), the autopsies on animals that died among the most atrocious sufferings highlighted the presence of dioxin in food and water as a cause of death. 

Moreover, the high concentrations of dioxins have been documented in a report by the Municipality of Acerra and by analyses carried out by laboratory technicians at the Mario Negri Institute in Milan.  

I would like to point out that the phenomenon of the "Land of fires" started from the south of Italy but also involves regions of central and northern Italy, as well as other nations.  

I am convinced that environmental crimes know no borders and that, as a result, they must be jointly tackled by the police, politicians, public opinion and health workers, through common strategies. 

You have been in America for many years now. If you were to transplant an aspect of the American research world into the Italian system, which would you choose?  

I would certainly like to see more funds allocated to scientific research in Italy, and with merit-based criteria.  

Unfortunately, however, scientific research in Italy is influenced by politics. The economic resources of the public sector are often poured into the private sector; instead of maintaining their mutual independence, private health and politics are strongly connected to each other to the point that doctors and health sector entrepreneurs enter into politics, influencing the choices of an entire sector.  

Although you are not an Italian American, you are particularly popular, appreciated and rewarded by the Italian American community. Our thesis is that we who live in Italy could learn a lot from the passion for Italy of the Italian Americans. What do you think about it?  

Anyone who lives far from their country, even by rational choice, suffers from the nostalgia for their own land and brings it with them every day, in their personal history. 

Personally, it may be also from the enhancement of the products of the South I come from: I developed my idea to study tomatoes and, in particular, the varieties of San Marzano and Corbarino.  

Some researchers I have directed at the National Cancer Institute of Naples, namely Daniela Barone and Letizia Cito, have published in the scientific publication "Journal of Cellular Physiology" a study that shows how these two varieties of tomato are able to inhibit, in the laboratory, the growth and the malignant characteristics of stomach cancer.  

I care very much about this work because it confirms that good eating habits (of which we Italians are masters), as well as playing a role in prevention, can, in the reasonable future, support conventional therapies.

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