Fellowship IBSA Foundation 2019, accolades to Tommaso Virgilio of IRB

The IBSA Foundation Fellowships awards five scholarships each year to young researchers from universities and research institutes around the world who have distinguished themselves for their skills and have ongoing projects of particular relevance in specific areas of research in the medical discipline. Tommaso Virgilio, PhD student at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB, affiliated to USI), is among the winners of the seventh edition, for his research in the field of dermatology.

Tommaso Virgilio came to Ticino after his studies in Veterinary Medicine at the University of Milan, during which he developed his passion for scientific research, which led him first to work in a laboratory at the Carlo Besta Neurological Institute in Milan and then to seek specific training in Bellinzona, at the IRB, where he began his doctorate. Here, led by his laboratory director, he focused his research on a project on melanoma, a tumor whose malignancy is mainly due to its very high capacity to create metastases, which are his main interest: "Melanoma is part of the groups of tumors defined as ’hot’. A group that is more easily recognised by the immune system, which however fails to eliminate it. From here comes the interest of our research, which is to understand why there is no inflammation capable of eliminating the tumor. Our research consists, in fact, in observing how the immune system in the sentinel lymph node, which is the first organ where metastases form, reacts to the invasion of melanoma. We are trying to understand which mechanisms block the inflammation and the elimination of metastasis and how we can modify them for a possible therapy", explains Virgilio.

The IBSA Foundation’s award for scientific research will allow us to explore precisely these aspects of dermatological research. "The current emergency has not allowed us to hold the usual award ceremony, but this stimulates us to move forward with even more enthusiasm" - commented Silvia Misiti , Director of the Foundation. "We have all become more aware of the fundamental role that scientific research plays in protecting our health. It is therefore necessary to continue to support researchers, because their work is the most powerful weapon we have to defend ourselves against a pandemic, and also the source of new therapies". It is in this spirit that Virgilio tackles laboratory work and a daily routine that has changed with the COVID-19 emergency: "The current situation highlights how our work has a real impact in everyday life. Sometimes we seem far out of touch with reality, when our discoveries seem so small or so distant in time from a possible application. Yet in these moments we remember the significance of our work, which is the only mean to find a solution to such health problems". Some IRB laboratories focus in particular on COVID-19, but there are many areas of research that continue to be studied and investigated in depth. "I find it important to remember that on the one hand we should all contribute to the fight against the current number one danger, SARS-CoV-2, but on the other hand it is also important not to stop our research against the other diseases, which also carry on", Virgilio points out.

What fascinates Virgilio most in his work as a researcher is to work on the borderline between what is known and what is still unknown and to be discovered: "Our task is to use what we know to discover what is not yet known. We are, in our own small way, a sort of modern explorer, venturing through unknown territories and bringing them to light" he concludes.