Professor Vincenzo (Enzo) Cerundolo
3 Aug 2009
It’s nearly time for Enzo Cerundolo to go home, but not before he’s finished discussing some results with a researcher in his group, Carmen De Santo. They’re good friends as well as being colleagues, and their conversation is interspersed with ribbing and laughter. “Carmen’s going to Vietnam to study avian flu samples to address a new hypothesis we’ve developed,” Enzo explains. “It’s early days but it could open up new possibilities for the treatment of flu.”
Enzo is associate director of the MRC Human Immunology Unit (HIU), and runs the tumour immunology research group. For the past 15 years, he’s studied the immune response to melanoma (skin cancer) and how vaccination strategies can be improved to help the immune system fight cancer. He’s discovered that activating immune system cells called NKT cells can be used to ‘jump start’ the immune response to cancer and viral infection. Now, with the support of an MRC experimental medicine grant, Enzo’s team is working on a compound which may have promise for treating melanoma.
Enzo is a warm and gregarious man who’s very fired up about his research – perfect attributes for leading the 20 ambitious and talented young researchers in his group. “My door is always open – I’m always ready to talk to people to discuss issues, problems, whatever,” he says. “I try to strike a balance between enhancing students’ enthusiasm and getting them to ask the right questions – you don’t want them chasing red herrings. One of the worst mistakes a scientist can make is to fall in love with his or her own hypothesis. It’s important to have ideas, but you need to keep asking yourself, ‘is this research question still relevant?’ ”
Born in Italy, Enzo studied medicine at the University of Padua. He came to Oxford as a post-doc in 1988. “I planned to stay in the UK one year, but 21 years later I’m still here,” he laughs.
Key to his work, Enzo says, is the fact that the HIU is based at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, part of the University of Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital – so his team has access to both basic scientists and clinicians. “It’s incredibly valuable being embedded in the HIU. There are more than 150 scientists with complementary lines of research here, and also groups working on HIV, dengue virus and autoimmunity. That’s the only reason I could move from cancer to flu.”
And his favourite part of the job? “Looking at the results of my researchers,” he says. “Unfortunately these days I don’t have the excitement of standing in front of the equipment and looking at the data as they are generated. So what excites me is when students or post-docs knock on my door and say, ‘Look Enzo, I’ve got this result’ – that makes me happy.”
“Translating findings from the lab to patients is very satisfying, it really gives me a buzz and I want to continue with this type of approach throughout my career. That’s why I’m extremely grateful to funding bodies like the MRC which are funding both basic and clinical research.”