Fuori dal coro

CAMBRIDGE – Nel periodo del post dottorato, che seguì agli studi universitari nel 1974, ebbi l'immensa fortuna di diventare membro dell'équipe di Judah Folkman, biologo della Harvard Medical School. Il dottor Folkman sosteneva la possibilità di arrestare la progressione dei tumori sopprimendo la fonte del loro nutrimento. Secondo la sua teoria, i tumori rilasciano una sostanza, denominata fattore di angiogenesi tumorale, che stimola la crescita dei vasi sanguigni in direzione della neoplasia, con la funzione di apportarle nutrimento ed eliminare le sostanze di scarto. Secondo Folkman, tale processo, detto angiogenesi, era cruciale per la sopravvivenza del tumore.

Questa teoria si poneva in netto contrasto con il pensiero prevalente nella comunità scientifica. Per gli scienziati incaricati di valutare i progetti di ricerca di Folkman, la vascolarizzazione non era altro che il risultato di un processo infiammatorio. Folkman, però, non si diede per vinto e alla fine dimostrò che tali sostanze chimiche esistono realmente. Oggi, circa quarant'anni dopo, si calcola che più di dieci milioni di persone affette da patologie neovascolari, come la degenerazione maculare e varie forme di cancro, si sono potute curare grazie alla sua scoperta.

Un'esperienza simile capitò anche a me nel periodo in cui, lavorando nel laboratorio di Folkman, studiavo il modo per isolare i primi inibitori della crescita dei vasi sanguigni (che erano sostanze ad alto peso molecolare). Tale compito richiedeva lo sviluppo di un dosaggio biologico che consentisse di osservare l'inibizione della crescita dei vasi sanguigni in presenza di tumori.

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