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In memoriam: Prof Francesco Lo Coco


Prof. Francesco Lo Coco
October 30th, 1955 – March 3rd, 2019

By William Arcese, M.D. Professor of Hematology Tor Vergata University, Director of Stem Cell Transplant Unit and Rome Transplant Network, Rome, Italy

Francesco Lo Coco suddenly passed away on March 3rd, in Rome, Italy.

He can be regarded as the hematologist who wrote over the last years the history of acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). His translational and clinical studies have been the basis for the current 90% cure rate in this disease.

In 1981, Francesco moved from the Medical School in Pisa to La Sapienza University of Rome to become fellow at the Hematology Institute directed by Prof. Franco Mandelli. 

From 1992 to 1994, he was visiting researcher at the Institute for Cancer Genetics of the Columbia University in New York, directed by Riccardo Dalla Favera, who remained close to him by a long-lasting friendship.

Coming back to Italy in 1994, he started his intense collaboration with Piergiuseppe Pelicci, another dear friend of him. The molecular characterization of the PML-RARA rearrangement in APL from their studies provided the basis for the modern treatment of the disease. Giuseppe Avvisati in Italy, Miguel Sanz of the Spanish Pethema group, Uwe Platzbecker of the German Intergroup, and several other Colleagues around the world have been his faithful and friendly fellow travelers on the long trip towards the cure of APL. The clinical, multicentric, randomized study promoted by the Italian GIMEMA group, published on the New England Journal Medicine in 2013, first showing that a highly aggressive leukemia can be cured without the use of chemotherapy, will remain a milestone in the history of medicine. 

Since 2005, he has been Full Professor of Hematology at Tor Vergata University in Rome, where he led the laboratory of Onco-hematology and funded a research group, which progressively grew over the years. Despite a number of logistic difficulties, but assisted by his devoted collaborators, in particular Maria Teresa Voso in the last years, he expressed an extraordinary planning capacity by standardizing the laboratory procedures and organizing the network for the genetic and molecular diagnosis of malignant hematologic diseases.

Along the years, Francesco Lo Coco held numerous prominent positions in  national and international scientific societies: Società Italiana di Ematologia Sperimentale (SIES), Società Italiana di Ematologia (SIE), American Society of Hematology (ASH), Associazione Italiana contro le Leucemie (AIL), Gruppo Italiano Malattie Ematologiche Maligne dell’Adulto (GIMEMA), Associazione per la Ricerca sul Cancro (AIRC), and European Hematology Association (EHA). 

Thanks to his continuous activity, he was member of several important Editorial Boards and published more than 400 papers in peer-review scientific journals, reaching an H-index of 96.

He received a long list of national and international awards during his scientific career.  Among those most relevant, we may mention the International Prize G. Di Guglielmo awarded by the “Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei” in 1992, the Commendatore al Merito della Repubblica Italiana in 2013, the European Sapio Award in 2014, the Tata Memorial Center Oration, Mumbay, India, in 2015, the G. Venosta Award by AIRC in 2016, the P. Stryckmans Memorial Lecture by the Belgian Society of Hematology in 2017, and, finally,  the prestigious “José Carreras Award” by the EHA in 2018.

In addition to his scientific qualities, it is impressive that the hundreds of messages of sympathy received in these days, and for which we thank everybody, remember how pleasant and enjoyable was to work with him or simply to run into him, and the elegance of his style.

Francesco, a person of unusual sensitivity and culture, keen on music and Opera, was also particularly charming and likeable when singing accompanied by the sound of his guitar. Sicily and the North of Spain with Castro-Urdiales, his beloved village, and the sea of Cantabrico region were his origins, to which he always came back.

Wonderful mentor for many physicians and biologists, he was greatly beloved by his Collaborators for his equity and capacity to be close to the individual attitudes and needs in the every day life. 

For Sergio Amadori and myself, as well as for all other Colleagues in our Institute, meeting him every morning was a true pleasure. Francesco was like a younger brother to me. We spent about forty years of our life together, and he designated me as godfather for his son Gaetano, the apple of his eyes, now musician and orchestra conductor.

Persons like Francesco Lo Coco are rare to meet in life, and this awareness makes his loss hardest to bear. We are stricken with deep grief, which will be very difficult to overcome.