Lives of the fellows

Gianni Bonadonna

b.28 July 1934 d.7 September 2015
MD Milan(1959) FRCP(1997)

Gianni Bonadonna was a pioneering oncologist. He was born in Milan, Italy, the son of Telesforo Bonadonna, a university professor, and Angioletta Negroni. He graduated from the University of Milan in 1959. After a short residency in Canada, he started his career as an oncologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where he was mentored by David Karnofsky, for whom he developed a profound and everlasting admiration. He considered it a very special honour to be selected to give the David Karnofsky memorial award and lecture at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in 1989.

In 1964 he returned to Italy and started working at the Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori of Milan. In 1976 he was appointed director of the department of medical oncology, and in 1999 he founded and became president of the Fondazione Michelangelo, a non-profit organisation aimed at promoting cancer research and treatment in a cooperative manner.

When he went back to Italy in the mid-1960s, oncology was not considered a stand-alone medical discipline, but only a part of internal medicine. Patients were referred to medical oncologists (at that time simply called ‘chemotherapists’) only when cancer was beyond the limits of surgery and radiation therapy. The relentless work and activity of Gianni Bonadonna to make cancer a curable disease revolutionised this situation. To achieve his goal he put together the best tools for studying emerging new drugs and pointed out the importance of coordinating the activity and efforts of medical oncology with those of surgery and radiation therapy in a combined approach. Obsessed with quality of data, he organised a coordinating centre for the collection and analysis of clinical trial data. Such seemingly obvious steps are now the basis of any clinical oncology effort in any well run hospital, but in the mid-1970s and early 1980s their proposal and activation was a major departure from anecdotal oncology and a real revolution in medicine.

Beginning in the 1970s, Bonadonna conducted leading research into breast cancer. His studies of adjuvant therapy showed that administration of drugs directed against cancer in the absence of clinically evident persistent disease after surgery obtained a reduction in the risk of recurrence and death of women with breast cancer. This led to a worldwide revolution in the therapeutic approach to women with operable breast cancer that has and still is increasing the chances of curing thousands of women every year. In recognition of the value of his research, the American Society of Clinical Oncology established in 2007 the prestigious Gianni Bonadonna Breast Cancer award and lecture.

Bonadonna also carried out important clinical work in the field of lymphomas. In 1972 Gianni Bonadonna and his team designed the drug regimen known by the acronym ABVD (adriamycin, bleomycin, vinblastine and dacarbazine), which is still used and referred to as standard therapy for Hodgkin lymphoma in adults and in children in any updated guideline of oncology treatment. Very few other therapies designed in the early 1970s have had such formidable and duly merited longevity.

Not only did Bonadonna introduce landmark therapeutic innovations that are now part of medical books and common knowledge around the world, he also proactively contributed to building medical oncology in Italy and Europe, affirming it as a discipline in which dedication to patients is combined with applied clinical research that must obey the main criteria of any scientific endeavour: rigor, reproducibility and feasibility. This was the model he taught to generations of physicians. He left us a legacy: tumours are now diseases that can be ‘defeated’, and to do this laboratory and clinical research must work together. His legacy is one of focus, persistence, passion, innovation and creativity: a combination of qualities that made Gianni Bonadonna a role model for oncology professionals.

In his career he received other many prestigious awards for clinical research in oncology, including the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal lecture of the American Association for Cancer Research, the medal of honour of the American Cancer Society, the General Motors award, the clinical research award of the Federation of European Cancer Societies, and the distinguished service award for scientific achievement of American Society of Clinical Oncology. In December 1993, the city of Milan awarded him the Ambrogino d’oro, the gold medal of civic merit. In 2004 he received an honorary degree from the University of Turin.

In 1966 he married Noemi Candini and they had a son and a daughter. Beyond his outstanding scientific research, Gianni Bonadonna was always a ‘doctor’, preaching and practising empathy and respect for patients. Even in the last 20 years of his life, after a severe stroke hit him in October 1995 and ended his academic career, he spent most of his time as an advocate for humane medicine, fully aware and respectful of the dignity of each patient. Gianni Bonadonna was a presence, despite his physical limitations, a person who had a terrific self-awareness and was always a pleasure to meet, to the end.

Luca Gianni
Pinuccia Valagussa

[ASC Connection 13 September 2015 – accessed 29 February 2016; The ASC Post 9 October 2015 – accessed 29 February 2016; Oncology Times 25 October 2015 Vol.37, Issue 20, p.14-15 – accessed 29 February 2016; Fondazione Michelangelo Gianni Bonadonna – Biography – accessed 29 February 2016; Ann Oncol (2016) 27 (1): 6-8 – accessed 29 February 2016; CancerProgress.Net. News and Views: Oncology Luminaries: Dr Gianni Bonadonna (1934-2015) – accessed 29 February 2016; AACR American Association for Cancer Research In Memoriam: Gianni Bonadonna, MD – accessed 29 February 2016; The Oncologist Gianni Bonadonna: A Tribute – accessed 29 February 2016]

(Volume XII, page web)

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