In 2000 he had identified one of the genes responsible for hemochromatosis, a hereditary genetic disease of iron metabolism. About ten years later he was responsible for the Regulation of Iron Metabolism research unit at the San Raffaele Hospital, and taught Internal Medicine at the Vita Salute San Raffaele University. In 2016 he received the Jean Bernard Lifetime Achievement Award of the European Hematology Association (EHA), “in recognition of his significant contribution to understanding the pathophysiology of inherited disorders of iron metabolism, including hereditary hemochromatosis, genetic iron deficiency and storage anemias of iron”. She again: she was president – the first female president – of the International Society for the Study of Iron (BioIron). The list of awards given to Clara Camaschella, born in 1948, from Varallo in Piedmont, is long. How long is his history with iron, the key element at the center of his scientific life. A life now told in the book “The Iron Woman – Memoirs of a determined girl”, published by Neos Edizioni, where more than anything else her stubbornness in wanting to assert herself in the world of research emerges when it wasn’t easy for women.
His first “encounter” with iron it happened while he was preparing his medical degree thesis on hemoglobinopathies. In those days, he recalls, only vague information on iron physiology was given in university courses, mostly related to anemia. It was while he was taking care of a small group of thalassemia patients at the Hemoglobinopathy Center of the University of Turin that, on the contrary, he began to understand the clinical consequences of excess iron. In fact, between the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, these patients had a very poor quality of life, and most of them died at a young age. The reasons were still completely unknown and that’s why changing direction and choosing to work on iron made her one of the pioneers of this field of research.
by Irma D’Aria
A fundamental discovery
In his book, Camaschella retraces some stages of his personal and professional life such as the discovery of the TFR2 gene, whose mutation – as we anticipated – is linked to the development of a form of hemochromatosis, a pathology which, if not diagnosed and treated promptly, it can also have very serious consequences, such as heart attack. “The study he went up Nature Genetics and he was the first to give us visibility on an international level – says Camaschella a Health – I speak in the plural because the work is shared with Paolo Gasparini’s group, who was then doing research at the medical genetics department of the San Giovanni Rotondo hospital in Foggia”. This publication opened important opportunities for collaboration and funding at the European level. Also thanks to the results on the TFR2 gene, in 2013 Camaschella was awarded the prestigious Han Wassermann lecture by the American Society of Hematology (ASH), which the researcher held in December of the same year in front of an audience of 100 thousand hematology experts.
by Simone Valesini
A “late” career
But, if we rewind the tape to a few years earlier, there were also moments of difficulty in Clara Camaschella’s professional life. “I am considered one of the rare women who made a career in medicine in the late nineties”, she writes in the first lines of her autobiographical book. After graduating in medicine and surgery from the University of Turin, and years spent doing research on a voluntary basis – and fighting to be called “doctor” and not “miss” -, Camaschella obtained the title of researcher, “the first step for my research career at the time – she explains – but at times I thought I would remain a researcher for life”. In fact, scientific publications alone were not sufficient to be able to participate in the competitions and therefore have access to the subsequent steps. You needed the “green light” from your employer even just to take part in a public competition. “Then I moved – Camaschella continues -. I worked at the Molinette in Turin, then at the San Luigi hospital in Orbassano, and there I started working on iron instead of hemoglobinemia, a change that made the difference. And since we had good results, in the end I made my career, but late.”
“Fortune favors the prepared mind”
In the title of the book, the word “determined” summarizes its history and the ingredients that made the goals achieved possible. There are no particular secrets: “Work hard and ask a lot of yourself, regardless of the results, even if they don’t arrive immediately. This is fundamental in research, because if one is immediately discouraged, one cannot be a researcher.” And he adds: “When we managed to clone the TFR2 gene, an English colleague complimented me and I replied that it was also partly luck. ‘Fortune favors the prepared mind,’ was his reply.” A perfect message – and book – to commemorate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which is celebrated on 11 February.
Proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to the AIRC Foundation (Italian Association for Cancer Research).