EACR Travel Fellowships are co-sponsored by Worldwide Cancer Research and provide funds up to €3,000 to early-career cancer researchers. For more information on how to apply for Travel Fellowships, you can visit the EACR website.

Name: Paolo Zaffino
Title: Postdoctoral researcher
Home institute: Magna Graecia University of Catanzaro (UMG), Department of Experimental and Clinical Medicine, Italy
Host institute: University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG), Netherlands
Dates of visit: 3 March – 23 March 2019

Research: I am developing an artificially intelligent algorithm to improve proton therapy treatment. The idea is to avoid daily acquisition of Computed Tomography (CT) for plan adaptation by generating an electron density map for dose calculation from Magnetic Resonance (MR) and Cone Beam CT acquisitions. This will improve the way tissue to treat/spare is identified, the treatment itself will be more accurate. At the same time as this, a lower ionizing dose will be delivered to the patient. I decided to collaborate with UMCG because they have an important data set used for validating the algorithm.

Why did you decide to apply for an EACR Travel Fellowship?

I decided to apply for an EACR Travel Fellowship in order to have support for spending three weeks in an important proton therapy center in the Netherlands, where the results of the scientific research are quickly translated into the clinical workflow.

Why did you choose the host lab?

Both groups are working on improving proton therapy treatment. I met the host supervisor, Prof. Antje Knopf, during a workshop in Germany and we discussed the research that both groups are undertaking. We found common ground, and identified that our groups’ experiences and skills could be combined and we decided to start a collaboration. The UMCG has an important proton center, where several patients are treated daily. For this reason, they have a valuable data set of cases that can be used for research purposes.

Paolo Zaffino
Paolo in front of the proton center with the host group and his advisor.
From left to right: Dr. Guterres Marmitt (postdoc), Prof. Antje Knopf (hosting advisor), Paolo Zaffino, Prof. Maria Francesca Spadea (Paolo’s advisor) and Bas De Jong (master’s student).

Can you summarise the research you did or what you learned on your visit?

Each day spent at UMCG was fruitful. I worked side-by-side with a post-doc (for ICT support and dose calculation), a PhD student (for Cone Beam CT conversion) and a master’s thesis student (for MR conversion). Once a week, we met together along with the host supervisor to discuss what we had done and to determine what we needed to plan next.

What were you able to do that you could not have achieved in your home lab?

Without collaborating with UMCG, I would have never had the opportunity to test and validate the algorithm on a large patient data set. In addition, Cone Beam CT acquisitions are available and this enabled me to evaluate the algorithm on images that are different to MR.

Do you have a personal mentor or anyone who particularly helped you?

My mentor is Prof. Maria Francesca Spadea, my current advisor. She is an assistant professor at UMG and was my Professor when I was a student as well as my PhD supervisor. It was her who introduced me to the medical imaging field and to research into radiation oncology.

Paolo Zaffino
The main entrance of the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG).

How has the trip inspired you in your research?

Thanks to my meetings with the team at UMCG and the ideas and suggestions that stemmed from those meetings, my stay has been extremely beneficial for my research. I am planning to spend the next few months implementing the new strategies we discussed. My colleagues were able to provide me with a different point view regarding any technical problems and new possible clinical applications.

Does your lab plan to do any future collaborations or publications with the host lab?

Definitely. We are currently working on the final experiments required for writing two manuscripts that will be submitted to one of the top peer reviewed journals in the radiation oncology field. The hope is that this collaboration will be a starting point for additional future papers, experiments and similar trips.

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