Dr. Sara G.M. Piccirillo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cell Biology & Physiology at the University of New Mexico (UNM) Health Sciences Center and a Full Member of the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Dr. Piccirillo graduated at the University of Milan (Italy) in Medical Biotechnology in 2003 and gained a Ph.D. in Translational and Molecular Medicine in 2008 at the University of Milan-Bicocca.

For her post-doctoral training, Dr. Piccirillo was awarded a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship in 2010 and worked as a Research Associate in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences of Cambridge University (UK). In February 2011, she was elected as a Research Fellow of Hughes Hall, one of the 31 colleges in Cambridge. In 2013, Dr. Piccirillo started a collaboration with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas (USA) and visited the institution between 2014-2016 as Visiting Senior Scientist.

In 2016, Dr. Piccirillo was recruited to UT Southwestern Medical Center as Faculty Member of Internal Medicine and in 2018 she was promoted to Research Assistant Professor at the same institution. In 2019, Dr. Piccirillo joined the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center as a Tenure-Track Assistant Professor.

Personal Statement

My research over the past eighteen years has had a major focus on the relationship between the genotype and the phenotype of the so-called 'cancer stem-like cells' in the most aggressive brain tumor in adults, i.e. glioblastoma (GBM). During my Ph.D. at the University of Milan-Bicocca (Italy), my work focused on key regulatory stem cell mechanisms of self-renewal and differentiation that are hijacked by tumor cells. Specifically, we identified a new therapeutic approach based on the induction of differentiation in GBM cells and determined the in vivo efficacy of a pro-differentiation therapy using patient-derived xenograft models (Piccirillo S.G. et al., Nature 2006). This work led to a patent application and to the development of a pro-differentiating therapeutic agent that has completed Phase I clinical trial in 2020.

My research also contributed to reveal that phenotypically and genetically distinct cancer stem-like cells coexist in the same GBM (Piccirillo S.G. et al., Oncogene 2009) and in areas of residual disease such as the tumor margin (Piccirillo S.G. et al., Br J Cancer 2012) and the sub-ventricular zone of the lateral ventricles (Piccirillo S.G. et al., Cancer Research 2015). Cancer stem-like cells from these areas contribute to patient-specific evolutionary trajectories of GBM growth and seed the recurrent tumor that is inevitable in GBM patients (Spiteri I., et al., Annals of Oncology 2019).

The research focus of my laboratory is the analysis of the functional consequences of the extensive genetic and phenotypic heterogeneity of GBM. Specifically, we are interested in investigating the impact of intra-tumor heterogeneity on therapeutic resistance and tumor growth after treatment. We integrate genomic measurements with the phenotypic analysis of cancer stem-like cells and use this information to gain mechanistic insights into the development of therapeutic resistance.

Areas of Specialty

Brain tumors
Neural stem cells
Cancer genomics

Achievements & Awards

2021 - The Robert M. Faxon Jr. Endowed Professorship in Neuro-Oncology

2021 - Translational Adult Glioma Award, The Ben and Catherine Ivy Foundation

2021 - AACR-Novocure Tumor Treating Fields Independent Investigator Research Grant, American Association for Cancer Research and Novocure

2019 - Gianni Bonadonna Prize for New Drug Development in Oncology, Gianni Bonadonna Foundation and Prada Group

2017 - DocStars Award, The Cary Council - Southwestern Medical Foundation

2016 - New Investigator Research Award, Cancer Research UK to support the collaborative project with UT Southwestern Medical Center

2014 - Master of Arts (Honorary), University of Cambridge, UK

2011-2016 - Research Fellowship at Hughes Hall College, Cambridge, UK

2011-2013 - Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship for Career Development, European Commission

2010 - Young Investigator Award, British Neuro-Oncology Society and Brain Tumour Research, UK

2007 - Best Young Italian Researcher, Premio Sapio Award

Key Publications

Journal Article
Piccirillo, Sara, Reynolds, B, A Zanetti, N, Lamorte, G, Binda, E, Broggi, G, Brem, H, Olivi, A, Dimeco, F, Vescovi, A, L 2006 Bone morphogenetic proteins inhibit the tumorigenic potential of human brain tumour-initiating cells. Nature, vol. 444, Issue 7120, 761-5
Journal Article
Spiteri, I, Caravagna, G, Cresswell, G, D Vatsiou, A, Nichol, D, Acar, A, Ermini, L, Chkhaidze, K, Werner, B, Mair, R, Brognaro, E, Verhaak RGW, , Sanguinetti, G, Piccirillo SGM, , Watts, C, 2019 Evolutionary dynamics of residual disease in human glioblastoma. Annals of oncology : official journal of the European Society for Medical Oncology, vol. 30, Issue 3, 456-463




  • English
  • Italian
  • German

Research and Scholarship


1. Piccirillo S.G., Reynolds B.A., Zanetti N., Lamorte G., Binda E., Broggi G., Brem H., Olivi A., Dimeco F., Vescovi A.L. (2006). Bone morphogenetic proteins inhibit the tumorigenic potential of human brain tumour-initiating cells. Nature, 444 (7120), 761-765.

2. Piccirillo S.G., Combi R., Cajola L., Patrizi A., Redaelli S., Bentivegna A., Baronchelli S., Maira G., Pollo B., Mangiola A., DiMeco F., Dalprà L., Vescovi A.L. (2009). Distinct pools of cancer stem-like cells coexist within human glioblastomas and display different tumorigenicity and independent genomic evolution. Oncogene, 28 (15), 1807-1811.

3. Piccirillo S.G.M., Colman S., Potter N.E., van Delft F.W., Lillis S., Carnicer M.J., Kearney L., Watts C., Greaves M. (2015). Genetic and functional diversity of propagating cells in glioblastoma. Stem Cell Reports, 4 (1), 7-15.

4. Piccirillo S.G.ª, Spiteri I., Sottoriva A., Touloumis A., Ber S., Price S.J., Heywood R., Francis N.J., Howarth K.D., Collins V.P., Venkitaraman A.R., Curtis C., Marioni J.C., Tavaré S., Watts C.ª (2015). Contributions to drug resistance in glioblastoma derived from malignant cells in the sub-ependymal zone. Cancer Res, 75 (1), 194-202. (ªco-corresponding author)

5. Spiteri I., Caravagna G., Cresswell G.D., Vatsiou A., Nichol D., Acar A., Ermini L., Chkhaidze K., Werner B., Mair R., Brognaro E., Verhaak R.G.W., Sanguinetti G., Piccirillo S.G.M.*, Watts C.*, Sottoriva A.* (2019). Evolutionary dynamics of residual disease in human glioblastoma. Ann Oncol, 30 (3), 456-463. (*co-senior and co-corresponding author)