Within the imposing arched façade of Italy’s National Research Council (CNR)’s base in Milan, researcher Renzo Vanna is hard at work. Vanna is a CNR researcher with a background in molecular medicine who leads various research activities based on the use of his home-built confocal Raman microscope, with especial focus on the use of vibrational imaging approaches for diagnostic and biomedical applications.
With a permanent position at the Institute for Photonics and Nanotechnologies (IFN-CNR) – based at the Physics Department of Politecnico di Milano – Vanna is seeking to bridge biophotonics tools and biomedical needs using spontaneous Raman microscopy, coherent Raman microscopy, photo-thermal microscopy and Brillouin spectroscopy.
Vanna has also been involved in CHARM since its conception and is a task leader for the project.
“Working on CHARM was an obvious decision for me,” Vanna explains. He speaks with conviction, his demeanor one of someone who cares deeply about his work. “With my background in medical science, I quickly understood that CHARM has the potential to improve the current way in which cancer is diagnosed. My particular set of technical skills also lends itself to the project.”
It certainly does. Vanna’s role within CHARM is to help optimise and validate the project’s new imaging technology, with the aim of transferring it soon to clinics. Given the project falls within the EU’s EIC Transition Challenge framework of ‘Medical Technology and Devices, from Lab to Patient’, researchers like Vanna, with expertise in both technology and medicine, have valuable insights to offer in the CHARM context.
Vanna says that the appeal of CHARM lies in its potential to deliver real-world solutions to current medical needs.
“Over the past 10 years, following a Ph.D. in molecular medicine, I’ve worked in technological universities and research hospitals in close contact with clinicians, while simultaneously developing and optimising innovative approaches not yet validated for clinical use. For me, the most exciting part of my work is when I approach a clinical problem for the first time, discuss it face-to-face with medical doctors, and ask them to share current medical needs or technological gaps that need to be solved.
“What I am doing in CHARM is precisely in line with this experience. My focus is on working to understand what CHARM can do to improve the current cancer diagnosis, and now that the project in underway my task is to deepen these aspects between technology and medicine, having concrete development goals in mind.”
So how does this translate to uptake of new instruments by clinics? Vanna smiles at the question – it is clear this is a topic on which he has given a lot of thought.
“For new tools and instruments to be adopted by clinics, determining performances and diagnostic accuracy is obviously important – these are essential first steps in developing a new diagnostic tool for eventual more mainstream use.
“Yet another key ingredient to ensure the uptake of new instruments into clinics is a deep understanding of their context: the current procedures, standard protocols, and international guidelines. For example, we cannot provide clinical information that is not already part of the standard clinical terminology. We cannot provide numbers when doctors expect images, or provide spectroscopic signals when they expect box plots with specific statistical parameters.”
Does this mean that a key part of developing new instruments is ensuring that they can still function in conjunction with existing tools and frameworks – even if these might be more limited than we might like?
Vanna nods. “It is also a matter of language,” he adds. “That’s why it is so important to spend time with pathologists and try to think like them, and not just like an engineer or researcher. Because at the end of the day, new instruments will only be useful in healthcare contexts if they are truly developed with those contexts in mind, and designed to make the work of healthcare experts more effective and accurate.”
It is time to return to work – yet Vanna kindly responds to one final question. Namely: what makes CHARM special?
“I believe CHARM offers a unique histopathology research proposition, at least within Europe,” says Vanna. “It’s a chance to use the knowledge and experience we’ve gained in the past years for an ambitious and exciting application. And who wouldn’t wish to contribute to developing a new diagnostic device that could help save lives?”
You can learn more about the CHARM project here.