Katia Fuso's Special Tumor
By Kevin Begos
For most of Katia Fuso’s life, no one in her family had any inkling just how biologically special she is. Fuso grew up in the small, ancient Umbrian town of Spello, in the center of Italy, before her family moved to Rome when she was 14. She married, worked in a government office, enjoyed trips to the country on weekends, and watched with pride as her two daughters grew up to work in the medical field. It was a satisfying but not unusual life.
At first, even her bout with highly aggressive breast cancer in 1995 seemed to mirror broader trends. She was 48 at the time, and like many women, was completely shocked when her doctor said at the end of a routine checkup that she needed an operation as soon as possible. And just as in the United States, in Italy Fuso was hardly alone. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women there, as it is among women in the U.S.—in other words, a serious problem that touches all too many lives.
Fuso was so focused on following her doctors’ advice that she wasn’t even afraid—it was almost as if the situation were happening to someone else, she says. And after 18 cycles of chemotherapy and three months away from work, she became part of another large group: women who survive breast cancer and go back to living productive, happy lives. For a time, that seemed to be the end of the story.
But the tumor wasn’t really gone. Yes, it was certainly in remission in her body, but a portion of the tissue was in storage at the Regina Elena Cancer Institute in Rome. Thinking back, Fuso recalls that her doctors kept saying her blood was “very interesting.” She didn’t ask just what that meant, but doctors at the institute did.
Physician Pier Giorgio Natali recalls that when a member of the institute’s translational research team examined its database of cancer patients, Fuso’s case stood out. She had an aggressive tumor yet was a long-term survivor. Natali, the institute’s scientific director at the time, says this combination led to speculation that Fuso’s body might contain tumor-fighting antibodies. The basic concept wasn’t new, and in fact research on laboratory mice had identified genes that lead to the production of such antibodies. But finding a similar gene in a human could be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Fuso’s tumor and her recovery gave scientists a lead about where to look.
In 2002, Fuso was surprised to get a call from the Regina Elena Cancer Institute. Researchers needed further blood samples from her body. Astonished at the thought that there was something special about her case, Fuso says she was very happy, and gladly did what was needed.
Then there was another call in 2003. Fuso’s tumor had led to an important scientific discovery: a gene that researchers named hMena. It appears to be a marker for advanced breast cancer—a type of signpost that may help doctors screen patients for the disease and design more effective treatments for those who develop it. One of Fuso’s daughters, a biologist, joked that she had gone all the way to Spain to do research, never suspecting that she had such a special mother right at home.
Natali says scientists have found that hMena may also help indicate if a patient is predisposed to respond to pancreatic cancer treatment—which could assist doctors and patients in making therapy decisions. The research on Fuso’s tumor is part of a worldwide trend, he adds: By isolating and storing tumors and comparing their characteristics in large databases, researchers are finding more and more genes that point the way toward personalized medicine—screening tests and treatments designed for the needs of individuals or small groups. (See the accompanying story.)
These days, Fuso is back to living a normal Italian life. She’s 62, retired, enjoys painting porcelain as a hobby, and goes to a house outside Rome on weekends to grow vegetables and make jams. But her husband and daughters have started to tease her with a new nickname: Cavia, which is Italian for guinea pig. Fuso says she doesn’t mind it a bit. Surviving cancer was a blessing, but her giving something back to help other people was an even more unexpected bounty.
(photo credit: Press Office IFO)