Francesca Ferraro, MD, PhD


Francesca Ferraro, MD, PhD
Assistant Professor of Medicine at Washington University

It was a dream realized for Francesca Ferraro, MD, PhD, when she joined Washington University’s Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Leukemia. First accepted in 2016 as a hematology-oncology fellow, Dr. Ferraro now holds the title of a Washington University School of Medicine assistant professor. Having dedicated her career to studying and treating acute leukemia, her choice of St. Louis was unsurprising.

“I knew that all these big acute leukemia gurus were here. The first cancer genome was sequenced here. So, when I had the opportunity and received the fellowship invitation, I was thrilled,” says Dr. Ferraro. “I came here and fell in love with the program and its focus on translational research.”

Her fascination with stem cells and the insights they can provide into cell behavior and biology are what drew Dr. Ferraro to hematology-oncology, but it was her desire to help cancer patients that kept her going. “There is something about cancer that brings us together,” says Dr. Ferraro. “Cancer is a diagnosis that can turn anybody’s life upside down. It leaves people to develop different relationships — even between patients and physicians — and I really enjoy these personal relationships. Throughout the years, I learnt that what people value the most from us physicians is our emotional connection during the time life threw a curve ball at them.”

While Dr. Ferraro spends a majority of her time doing research at the bench, she also sees patients at clinics in the hospital.

The Path to Her Own Laboratory

Prior to joining Washington University, Dr. Ferraro received her medical degree from the University of Parma in Parma, Italy — her hometown. Known for parmesan cheese and Parma ham, Parma is also home to one of the oldest universities in the world. There, Dr. Ferraro completed a hematology-oncology residency before seeking out an opportunity that would allow her to become more immersed in research. She was given the opportunity to join a laboratory at Harvard Stem Cell Institute with prominent researcher David Scadden, MD, where she carried out her PhD while studying stem cell behaviors. 

Dr. Ferraro (back, far right) with her family in Italy.

However, Dr. Ferraro missed the clinic, as most of the questions she sought to research were derived from experience she had with patients. She decided to repeat her residency at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia prior to accepting her fellowship at Washington University. After two years as a fellow, Dr. Ferraro became an instructor to continue her research in the laboratory of National Academy of Sciences Member Tim Ley, MD. In July 2021, she opened her own laboratory as a physician-scientist. 

“It’s been a long path for me, definitely, but in all of these years, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve done because I’m doing what I like,” she says. “It’s been a lot of training and waiting to get to where I am now, but it all helped me to develop new skills and see more perspectives.”

Aiming for Personalized Medicine

Dr. Ferraro’s laboratory is focused on acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Her research aims to understand the molecular mechanism that determines how leukemia cells interact and evade immune response and treatment, with hopes of using this information to improve treatment for AML. 

“We can’t use the same treatment for everyone because every person is different,” says Dr. Ferraro. “By studying the mutations that contribute to AML, both alone and in combination with one another, we can hopefully develop targeted therapies that lead to better and longer remission, and do it in a tailored and patient-specific way.”

The SPORE in Leukemia has been instrumental in supporting Dr. Ferraro’s research. It has allowed her to equip her laboratory with the necessary equipment as well as fund her team. She is joined in her lab by one postdoctoral researcher and two technicians, and she hopes to instill in them the same love for research she has while helping them in achieving their goals. “Their success is my success,” she says.

Beyond the Bench
Dr. Ferraro on a float trip with her husband, Steve, and stepson, Jameson.

Outside of the lab and clinic, Dr. Ferraro loves to cook. Recently switching to a plant-based diet, she has spent much of the pandemic reinventing traditional Italian dishes. She also enjoys playing classical guitar, hiking, biking and spending time in nature with friends. While recent trips have been delayed, she travels home to Italy when possible to share time with her family where her love for her work was originally sparked.

“Working in this field, it teaches you a lot about life and about who you are and about human relationships,” shares Dr. Ferraro. “Those relationships really enrich your life and the lives that you come across.”

If you’d like to read more about the SPORE in Leukemia projects, click here.