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Massey researcher creates artificial molecules to target lung cancer mutations in hopes of developing novel treatments

Mario Acunzo, Ph.D.

Mario Acunzo, Ph.D., designs artificial molecules and uses them to target cancer-causing genetic mutations in hopes of developing new treatments for lung cancer and other forms of disease.

He joined VCU Massey Cancer Center as a member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program in June 2017 and is an assistant professor in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care in the Department of Internal Medicine at the VCU School of Medicine.

Recently, he published a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America that described how he was able to create artificial microRNAs, small non-coding molecules, that effectively targeted KRAS mutations in animal models of non-small cell lung cancer.

Following the results of this study, Acunzo hopes to pair nanoparticles with artificial microRNAs to more effectively target tumor sites in vivo (in living cells).

A shared dream of he and his wife, Gulia Romano, who collaborates on his research with him as a project manager at VCU, is to test his molecules through clinical trials and potentially extend survival for patients with aggressive forms of cancer, such as those characterized by the KRAS mutation where there aren’t any known cures.

“I want to create more experiments to test this molecule in vivo and I want to accelerate the results because it’s a long journey. Since it’s a long journey, I would like to start now,” Acunzo said, hoping to collaborate with other Massey researchers who study rare and aggressive cancers once his technology is established.

Although his research is focused in lung cancer cells, Acunzo is hopeful that his scientific approach could be beneficial for any tumors with the KRAS mutation – including pancreatic, colon and liver cancers – and possibly even tumors defined by other mutations.

Acunzo received a pilot grant for $20,000 from the VCU Department of Internal Medicine that he will invest in his microRNA research.

“The pleasure of discovery is like putting a brick in a wall. It’s nice because it’s like you have contributed to build something – to build knowledge – and that brick represents something added to the scientific community,” Acunzo said.

Since joining only a couple of months ago, he considers Massey an exciting environment of which to be a part because of the constant collaboration in an effort to make it a thriving nucleus for cancer research.

“You have to love what you do, otherwise it doesn’t work,” Acunzo said as he pointed to a poster facing his desk repeating the same message. “I am thinking about my research 24 hours of the day. I close my computer at 7:30 p.m. and go home to raise my baby, but even when I’m home or relaxing on the weekend, I’m always connected to the work that I do.”

He and his wife celebrated the birth of their daughter, Lucia, in July.

Acunzo was born in Naples, Italy, just a few miles from the Tyrrhenian Sea, where he began his pursuit of scientific studies in high school. He earned a master’s degree in molecular biology and a Ph.D. in molecular medicine from the University of Naples.

While earning his Ph.D., Acunzo began studying cell signal transductions (the transmissions of molecular signals in and out of cells) as they relate to the development of cancer, including the deregulation of the MAPK15 gene.

In 2008, he traveled halfway across the globe to Columbus, Ohio, to complete his post-doctoral fellowship in molecular genetics at The Ohio State University. Acunzo started to focus on the development and editing of microRNAs, eventually discovering the role of specific molecules in lung cancer growth.

During Acunzo’s tenure in Ohio, he worked closely under the mentorship of Patrick Nana-Sinkam, M.D., the Division Chair of Pulmonary & Critical Care Medicine at VCU and a member of the Cancer Cell Signaling and Cancer Prevention and Control research programs at Massey, who was responsible for recruiting him to join the faculty at VCU and Massey.

In partnership with Nana-Sinkam, Acunzo plans to establish a lung cancer translational research laboratory focused on extracellular RNA and non-coding RNA biology.

Long-term, Acunzo hopes to create an independent extramural-funded research program.

Published in nearly 30 peer-reviewed scientific journals, Acunzo has been a member of the American Association for Cancer Research since 2013.

Acunzo looks to Rita Levi-Montacini, an Italian Nobel-prize winning scientist, as a role model for his life’s work. Levi-Montacini discovered the nerve growth factor, and Acunzo is inspired by the strength she had during a time when it was difficult for women to become successful doctors or scientists.

Acunzo lives with his family in the West End near the University of Richmond. He believes that downtown Richmond more similarly reflects the environment of a European city than other U.S. cities, and enjoys Richmond’s natural surroundings as well as its proximity to both the beach and the mountains.

Acunzo is an avid fan of S.S.C. Napoli, an Italian football club in the UEFA Champions League, and international cinema, with three of his favorite movies being Barry Lyndon, La Grande Bellezza and Pulp Fiction.

Written by: Blake Belden

Posted on: October 12, 2017