(From the left) Francesca Gioia Klinger e Luisa Campagnolo, researchers of Histology and Embryology at the Tor Vergata University of Rome (Department of Biomedicine and Prevention), and Rocco Rago, head of the Centre for Sterility and Assisted Procreation of the Pertini Hospital in Rome
GENEVA – She has the contagious enthusiasm and the incredulity of those who cannot believe of having won, together with her group. One of the three scholars awarded with the Gfi (Grant for Fertility Innovation) 2017, an award wanted and funded by Merck, is the Italian group of Luisa Campagnolo, researcher of Histology and Embryology of the Tor Vergata University of Rome, and her colleague Francesca Gioia Klinger. They work in collaboration with the Centre for Sterility and Assisted Procreation of the Pertini Hospital in Rome, headed by Rocco Rago. A public centre, which deals with basic research.
IN THE USA - Graduated at Sapienza University in Rome, Campagnolo worked for four years at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego where - she tells - she happened to meet Laureates or talk with Dulbecco, and where it was easy to say "I'm a scientist", without anyone laughing, as it happens in Italy. Later she is tempted by nostalgia and takes part in a competition for researchers in Rome, winning it. In 2004 she goes back home. "Because Italy is my country, and maybe because I had some more expectation. Then, I realized that in Italy public research really is almost zero."
THE PROJECT – The project she is winning today was born at Tor Vergata when Luisa decided to proceed as in the United States and let her students do all the material work – she teaches Biotechnology – rather than just telling it. Thus, she prepares a teaching laboratory, with the collaboration of Rocco Rago of Pertini hospital, and shows how they manipulate oocytes (mice), how they crioconserve gametes (male ones are human but discarded) and how they are evaluated. A real success. From this didactic collaboration comes the research project, aimed at studying the EGFL7, which she had begun studying in the United States. Behind the abbreviation is an angiogenesis regulator (which is therefore also studied in oncology) but Luisa is convinced that it can play an important role in reproduction as it is also implicated in placental development.
THE HYPOTESIS – And so – she supposes – why could EGFL7 not be important even for embryo implantation, the most problematic moment of assisted fertilization whose mechanisms are still ignored today? Rocco Rago defines it as a sort of "black hole", because the ways in which the embryo - once inserted into the uterus - converses with the endometrium are unknown. This is the most delicate instant, since up to 60% of the implants can fail. When embedded in the uterus, the embryo waits 48 to 72 hours before the implantation and perhaps it sends messages to the endometrium. Since in mice EGFL7 is released from the embryo shortly before implantation, could this not be how embryo and endometrium communicate?
THE FUTURE – This is a fascinating hypothesis that, if checked, could enable the detection of a factor responsible for the implant, and act on this in a specific way. Thus, unable to work in vivo for ethical problems, with the help of Pertini Hospital Tor Vergata's Obstetric Pathology (Carlo Ticconi) which will provide endometrial biopsies of women who suffer from recurrent abortions, Campagnolo and her team will study how the EGFL7 factor modulates the signal. "If, as we believe, this factor is important for uterine receptivity", said the researcher, "it may become a therapy target, perhaps even at a local level. We could speculate that a little quantity of EGLF7 brushed directly on the endometrium might promote implantation. By studying the moment when the embryo secretes this factor, it might be also possible to identify the right time for the transfer".
THE CELEBRATION – All this will happen in the next two years. Meanwhile - admits Campagnolo, who celebrated her birthday here in Geneva yesterday - this award was the most beautiful birthday present. "We have won and it has all happened in just a few months", she says, "and for me it is a great achievement." We had previously won another project of the Ministry of Health, but the funds came in after three years, and in the meantime, others published the results of what we had proposed. In this case, instead, we presented the project in December and already today we will have the required funds, all in the dark"
46 APPLICATIONS – The forty-six works submitted to the competition have been evaluated without any indication that could link the projects to the names of the proposers in order to ensure absolute impartiality. And today, Luisa - who is one of the winners - can go home and tell her children - without causing hilarity - that mom is really a scientist.