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Scientist puts cancer under fierce new light

University Of Wisconsin-Madison : 23 August, 2000  (Technical Article)
Gelsomina De Stasio speaks English and Italian with equal fluency. But when she speaks of a 'multi-lingual approach' to curing cancer, it has little to do with either language. De Stasio, a physics professor and one of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's new strategic hires, talks about multilingual science: a hybrid of physics, chemistry, biology and oncology that is guiding her to new approaches to fighting lethal cancers.
De Stasio was hired in fall 1999 to be part of an interdisciplinary team that's creating a new generation of high-powered microscopes. Her technology is putting cancer cells under a new light and may lead to one of the most precise treatments yet for cancer.

'The more we progress with science, the more there is left to do,' says De Stasio, whose research is based at the Synchrotron Radiation Center in Stoughton. 'Whatever's left will require the cooperation of specialists from many different disciplines.'

In one of the greatest challenges left, battling cancer, De Stasio is working on a promising treatment called Gadolinium Neutron Capture Therapy, a two-part treatment that she likens to 'making a microscopic nuclear bomb explode in each cancer cell.'

For years, scientists have known that the element gadolinium is an important tool for pinpointing the exact location of tumors during magnetic resonance imaging. When injected intravenously into cancer patients, gadolinium collects only inside cancer tissue without damaging healthy tissue.

De Stasio is mining greater potential. Gadolinium also is highly reactive to thermal neutrons, which are low-energy atomic particles that deliver almost no radiation. Infusing cancer cells with gadolinium and then bombarding the tumor with thermal neutrons creates an explosive reaction and kills cancer cells with no 'collateral damage' to healthy tissue.

Although clinical trials are still ahead, De Stasio's recent findings have been promising. This summer, she discovered that gadolinium is capable of invading the nucleus of cancer cells, a necessary component to killing them. The technical results have been sent off to a major journal and are likely to garner national attention among cancer specialists.

This research offers particular hope for treating glioblastoma, a brain cancer that is often non-operable and in most cases lethal. De Stasio is involving a group of doctors in the UW-Madison oncology department to begin preparing steps toward a clinical trial.

'This could not be achieved by physicists or medical doctors separately,' she says. 'Only the synergy of these two disciplines will make it possible.'

Although a recent addition to the UW-Madison faculty, De Stasio has been working for more than a decade at the Synchrotron Radiation Center. The Rome native, known by nearly everyone as 'Pupa,' was an accomplished, internationally known scientist working for Italy's National Research Council and the Swiss Institute of Technology.

Since 1989, her actual research was done at SRC, where she co-created and installed one of the highest-resolution microscopes in the world.

In 1998, at age 34, De Stasio was first approached about joining the UW-Madison faculty as part of the strategic hiring program. At the same time, she had another attractive offer from California's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she would have applied her talents to creating new materials for NASA missions to Mars.

She says the full professorship seemed out of character for her, as someone with night-owl tendencies and little interest in office formalities. But the prospect of academic freedom and some compelling teaching assignments won her over.

De Stasio teaches a course called 'Physics and the Arts' for physics non-majors. She abhors blackboard teaching and immediately went to work creating her entire course in computer presentations, full of famous paintings, photography, architecture and examples from nature and technology.

The class suits her well, as an art lover and self-taught surrealist painter who creates 'alternative realities' on canvas. She adds: 'I was surrounded by beauty growing up in Rome. You couldn't avoid artwork if you tried.'

She's now immersed in faculty life. 'Oh yeah, they welcomed me,' she jokes about her colleagues. 'They put me on every committee they possibly could.'

But the research remains her driving force, and she often works until 2 or 3 a.m., gathering data from the SRC 'beamline.' SRC is famous for its advances in silicon chip etching, micromachines and materials research, yet few people realize that this intense synchrotron light is being harnessed for cancer and Alzheimer's research, she says.

Anatomy professor John White, who coordinates this strategic hiring area, says the development of new microscopes is an exploding field because of all the advances in the biosciences. New microscopes are capable of peering deeply into the inner workings of a living cell and developing time-lapse images of an organism's development.

De Stasio is joined in the strategic hiring group, the technical name is biophotonics, by physiology professor Gerard Marriott and anatomy professor Tim Gomez. Virginia Hinshaw, dean of the Graduate School and chief research officer, says De Stasio is a good example of the type of talent targeted in strategic hiring. Hires tend to have hybrid backgrounds and work in emerging fields that don't neatly fit into any single department.

Those people can be lost in traditional, single-department hires, she says. 'They may be looking for talent X, but she's doing X, Y and Z.'

'I am certainly struck by the fact that she has the mind and the spirit to accomplish great good on this campus,' Hinshaw adds. 'She has a talent for seeing possibilities.'
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