Barbara Savoldo, MD, PhD, and Gianpietro Dotti, MD, have been members of the UNC Lineberger faculty for only six years, but they have quickly made profound contributions clinically and scientifically, and, most recently, philanthropically.
World-renowned scientists in the field of cellular immunotherapy, the two were recruited from Baylor College of Medicine in 2015 to lead UNC Lineberger’s cellular immunotherapy program, a major initiative to harness the power of a patient’s immune system to fight cancer.
During the past three years, UNC Lineberger has developed and opened 10 adult and pediatric novel chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy clinical trials. The program’s success is due to the efforts of many, including Jonathan Serody, MD, director of UNC Lineberger’s immunotherapy program and chief of hematology, and the clinical study leaders and study participants, but the program would not have grown as quickly or as robustly without Savoldo and Dotti.
While their CAR-T research has the potential to help people worldwide, for Savoldo and Dotti, a married couple, their research to develop a CAR-T therapy for glioblastoma (GBM), an aggressive brain cancer, has become personal.
In July 2019, Savoldo’s youngest sister, Sonia, was diagnosed with GBM. Knowing there are limited treatments for GBM, none of which is curative, and seeing the challenges Sonia has experienced, Savoldo and Dotti made a gift to UNC Lineberger to establish the Sonia Savoldo GBM Fund to advance immunotherapy research for GBM and to assist patients experiencing financial hardships.
“Glioblastoma is a tumor with a dismal prognosis, and novel treatments are urgently needed to improve outcomes,” said Savoldo, assistant director of the UNC Lineberger Cellular Immunotherapy Program. “We created the fund to support immunotherapy research for glioblastoma and to support patients and their family members.”
Sonia is receiving her care at the Carlo Besta Neurological Institute in Milan, Italy, which is two hours north of her home town and is regarded as the best hospital in Italy for the treatment of GBM. Coincidentally, UNC Lineberger started working collaboratively with the institution in 2016 with the goal to develop CAR-T therapies for GBM. Dotti said the preclinical research has shown promising results.
“I think Sonia is the most courageous person in our family,” Savoldo said. “She has endured numerous treatments, including “experimental” therapies. I think her choosing to enroll in experimental therapies is because she has heard us many times expressing our gratitude to all the patients who enroll in clinical trials here at UNC. I think she wanted to do her part. Because of our research and its translational aspect, she understands how important being helpful for others is.”
Naming the fund in Sonia’s honor has been meaningful for her and her family. It also made for a touching gift last Christmas.
Due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, Savoldo and Dotti could not go home to Italy for the holidays. “I think the sad aspect of the past year has been the pandemic that has robbed us of many days together,” Savoldo said. “Being this far away has been particularly difficult. For the first time we have not been able to spend the Christmas holiday together. The creation of the fund was her Christmas present, and it made her really happy. She said it made her feel like she is contributing to something, that it will be her legacy. I think that is true, regardless of the fund, because she has chosen to participate in research trials and helped others. That is the most valuable legacy.”
Savoldo said her sister is fortunate to have access to some of the best care in Italy, but traveling there is challenging as the hospital is 110 miles from her home in Mantova. “Though she has never complained about her own situation, Sonia has told me the most painful part of ‘joining the cancer patient club’ is seeing many families struggling, coming from much farther away, having to spend weeks or months away from home to access the best care,” Savoldo said. “So, in addition to support research, we really wanted to make sure that anyone in need has access to such therapies regardless of their means.”
Dotti, director of the UNC Lineberger Cellular Immunotherapy Program, said establishing the fund at UNC Lineberger made sense for several reasons. “UNC Lineberger is at the forefront of developing novel therapies for diseases like GBM. During the past five years, there has been increasing interest in moving successful immunotherapeutic approaches from other cancers to GBM. Being part of the UNC community, every day we see researchers working collaboratively to better understand what causes cancer, what drives it and how to treat it. We believe this fund will help in accelerating the translation of promising approaches to an actual therapy.”
The couple also wants to support the North Carolina Cancer Hospital, the clinical home of UNC Lineberger, because they believe deeply in its commitment to provide the best possible cancer care to anyone regardless of their ability to pay.
They also want to ensure cancer research does not slow during the COVID-19 pandemic. “There is always an urgency in finding cures for any type of cancer, and we think funding should never be a barrier,” Dotti said. “The COVID pandemic rightly is the focus of so many, but we want to make sure there is no pause or the pace doesn’t slow for GBM research. Cancer patients cannot afford to wait for the world to go back to normal and for everything to resume as it did pre-pandemic.”