Research projects

What can the placenta teach us about cancer?

Dr Vincenzo Costanzo
Project period
Apr 2021 - Apr 2024
Research Institute
Universita degli Studi di Milano
Cancer types
General cancer research
Award amount

Project aim

Dr Vincenzo Costanzo and his team are trying to better understand the link between the ability of cancer and placental cells to invade surrounding tissues and hide from the immune system.

Hope for the future

Cancer cells have a range of abilities that allows them to spread to other tissues, while hiding from our immune systems. Once a cancer has spread – or metastasized – it is much harder to treat.

Dr Costanzo and his team are now investigating the way in which cancer cells gain these abilities. They hope that a better understanding will lead to the discovery of new and effective therapies for a wide range of cancers.  


Meet the scientist

Dr Vincenzo Costanzo is both a researcher and clinician. When not working, Dr Vincenzo Costanzo likes to spend his time playing Jazz music as an amateur pianist.

The science

During pregnancy, the placenta – a temporary organ that feeds and protects the foetus – has to attach strongly to the uterus. It does this by invading the wall of the uterus and by connecting to the mother’s blood vessels. At the same time, the cells in the placenta need to make sure that the mother’s immune system doesn’t recognise and attack the foetus’ cells as they are “foreign”. Cancer cells exploit many of the very same abilities when they are invading surrounding tissues, while making sure to not be detected by the body’s immune system.

Every time a cell divides, it needs to copy its entire DNA. Cancer cells divide incredibly rapidly, putting a lot of pressure – or stress – on the machinery that copies its DNA. Dr Vincenzo Costanzo and his team discovered that this replication stress in cancer cells seems to reactivate the same abilities that were present in placental cells. These abilities are usually suppressed in adult cells, as they are only needed during foetal development. The team is now trying to gain a better understanding of how the cancer cell’s stress response is linked to the reactivation of placental abilities and hope that their insights will lead to the discovery of new and effective treatments.

The Worldwide Cancer Research funding will have an incredible impact on this research project, which was deemed by others to be too difficult to pursue. I am grateful that Worldwide Cancer Research believed in the idea.
Dr Vincenzo Costanzo

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