“My dream was always to be a scientist, ever since I was five,” said Freenome researcher Francesco Vallania. Raised in Northern Italy, he remembers going out into the rainy woods near his home to study nature, drawing anything that caught his eye, including flowers, little bugs, snails, and leaves in a sketchbook while his mother lovingly held an umbrella over him.
“If you’re looking at a snail very close, you can actually see a lot of their inner parts moving inside. I realized the beauty of science is that there’s no way I could build a snail from scratch. Or, if a snail is broken, there’s no way I could bring it back to life. It’s not like a machine.” That experience triggered in him a desire to understand more about biology.
Francesco earned a degree in Molecular Biology before moving to the U.S. at age 24 to pursue a Ph.D. in Computational and Systems Biology at Washington University in St. Louis. During that time his mother, Natalina Vallania, was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She passed away in 2010, with Francesco by her side.
In early 2022, Freenome launched the Vallania Study, named after Francesco’s mother, the company’s first clinical trial for the detection of multiple cancers. Freenome has taken a personal approach to its clinical trial names, naming them in honor of employees’ loved ones who battled cancer. Many people at the company, including Francesco, are driven in the work that they do by their experiences losing family and friends to cancer.
For Francesco, working at a place that integrates its mission into its work in this way is especially meaningful. “It’s extremely touching and very unique,” he said. The Vallania Study will focus on diseases with significant unmet needs, such as pancreatic and lung cancer. “Pancreatic cancer is the perfect example of a cancer that needs early detection, and early detection is really hard,” he explained. There are often no symptoms until the cancer is advanced, as was the case with his mother.
The Vallania Study is focused on developing next-generation blood tests to detect cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages. Given that nearly 40% of people will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetimes¹, early detection and intervention can potentially save millions of lives and spare those families the pain of losing loved ones too soon.
Losing his mother to pancreatic cancer changed the course of Francesco’s studies, shifting him from theoretical to translational work. He decided to enroll in a postdoctoral program in Systems Immunology at Stanford. “I am fascinated by the immune system because it is involved in so many different things” said Francesco, who today leads a research group at Freenome focused on cancer detection, progression, and response to therapy. “We are looking for biomarkers that can be predictive of cancer progression but can also inform therapeutic response and reveal underlying biological mechanisms.”
Naming the Vallania Study after his mother is a fitting tribute to the person who encouraged her only child’s love of science, supported his dreams, and influenced the direction of his career. She raised Francesco by herself after his father passed away, and her strength and determination did not falter even after her cancer diagnosis. “She fought like a lioness until the very end, and she taught me that I could do and achieve anything that I set out to do with hard work and passion,” said Francesco.
When asked what his mother would think about the Vallania Study, he said, “I hope she’s happy and proud. My goal in life is to do the best science that I can possibly do with the goal of making humankind better. And I think that she would want me to keep pushing as much as I can. She was the epitome of resilience and the greatest role model I have ever had and possibly ever will.”
¹Cancer Statistics, National Cancer Institute, September 29, 2022, https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics