The long-term goal of the German Cancer Research Center is to unravel the causes and mechanisms of cancer development and, based on new insights, to develop novel tools for diagnosis, early detection, treatment, and prevention. We build on outstanding basic biomedical research, an evaluation of complex systems (systems biology), as well as efficient platforms for the translation of new findings from “bench to bedside”

Based on these three key competences the research divisions and groups of the German Cancer Research Center are organized into seven Research Programs (see below). All Ph.D. project supervisors belong to one of the seven research programs.

Contributions from many disciplines, an excellent research infrastructure, and systematic interactions among the research groups of the Center provide a strong framework for our projects.

Research Program A: Cell biology and tumor biology

Every cancer originates from an individual cell. If its genetic material has undergone a number of changes that can no longer be corrected, then the cell breaks out of the sophisticated balance of growth and renewal and starts to proliferate uncontrollably. Thus, to develop new approaches in cancer treatment, we need to understand the complex processes occurring within cells and their interactions with neighboring cells and their environment.

The research divisions and groups involved in this Research Program study the mechanisms of cell differentiation, i.e. how cells specialize into the various types of differentiated cells and tissues with their specific tasks. To do so, researchers primarily use methods of cell and molecular biology and genetically modified animal models. A focus of their research is the regulation of cell-type specific proteins and their functions. In addition, researchers are investigating changes in the genetic material that cause or promote tumor development.

Research Program B: Structural and Functional Genomics

Cancer occurs when genes in a cell are changed in such a way that they cause the cell to divide uncontrollably. For this to happen, however, a multitude of specific changes have to coincide. It is the task of this Research Program to analyze the genome - the complete set of genes - to lay the foundation for developing new diagnostic and treatment methods. This involves mapping the genome, localizing genes within the genetic material, and investigating the functions of cancer-relevant genomic areas.

The vast amounts of data accumulated in the process are captured and evaluated using bioinformatic methods. By combining approaches from mathematics, statistics, physics, and computer sciences with computer-assisted simulation techniques, the theoretical groups of this Program are bridging the gap to experimental research. The methods developed within the Program are being directly used in many areas within collaborations with numerous divisions and research groups of the Center. Some examples are molecular and genomic investigations of the structure of genetic material, cancer documentation, medical imaging, and biostatistical evaluations of experimental and clinical data.

Research Program C: Cancer Risk Factors and Prevention

This Program is concerned with identifying risk factors (such as primary prevention), early detection (screening), and approaches to prevent disease progression (chemoprevention). Furthermore, the Program has a strong emphasis on epigenetic profiling of human malignancies. The German Cancer Research Center occupies one of the leading positions in the areas of cancer epigenetic studies, epidemiological studies as well as in nutrition sciences, biostatistics, and the application of biomarkers, characteristic biological features that are key to the prognosis or diagnosis of cancer. It may be possible to prevent up to 30 percent of new cancer cases within the next 20 to 30 years. To reach this goal, the main activities of this program are focused on:

  • integrating laboratory research, epidemiology, and clinical studies
  • compiling and extending collections of biological samples and databases
  • integrating genome, epigenome, proteome, and biomarker research into epidemiological and clinical studies on the causes and prevention of cancer
  • studies to identify causal connections such as between diet and cancer
  • evaluation of mechanisms leading to epigenetic alterations in tumors
  • educational measures
  • research and quality control related to tests and early detection programs
  • characterizing new drugs for cancer prevention
  • research in the fields of biostatistics and methological counseling

Research Program D: Tumor Immunology

The immune system is our body’s most powerful weapon to combat pathogens and cancer cells. However, tumor cells have a repertoire of tricks to evade the immune response. The divisions and research groups of this Program investigate the mechanisms regulating the behavior of immune cells. Research focuses on cell proliferation and programmed cell death (apoptosis), as well as on the activation and regulation of immune cells. Also under investigation are cancers affecting the immune system itself. The aim is to better understand the role of the immune system in cancer, AIDS, and autoimmune diseases.

Other working areas include investigating the connections between natural (innate) and adaptive (acquired) immunity and the resistance of tumors to treatment. The findings will be translated into new approaches for clinical application to utilize the potential of the immune system for fighting cancer.

Research Program E: Imaging and Radiooncology

It is the task of this Program to introduce new findings, methods, and technologies to the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The goal is to tailor tumor treatment to the individual patient and to improve possibilities for local and systemic tumor control. This multidisciplinary Program is divided into two research areas: radiological oncology and medical oncology.

Radiological Oncology
Work is centered on the development of novel approaches in diagnostics and therapy, based on physical methods. Main research areas are technologies within the fields of imaging and radiation therapy. The subject’s complexity requires collaborations among scientists from various disciplines: physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers, chemists, and biologists.

Medical Oncology
This area is concerned primarily with questions of toxicology, pathology, and chemotherapy, as well as approaches in gene therapy. The aim is to develop novel systemic therapeutic and diagnostic methods and to immediately transfer these into a clinical setting. This is achieved through intensive collaboration between the fundamental research divisions and groups of this Program and the Clinical Cooperation Units of the German Cancer Research Center.

Research Program F: Infection and Cancer

Viruses play a crucial role in a number of cancers. This Program investigates the mechanisms through which viruses cause cancer and the ways in which the body defends itself against viruses. In addition, researchers are isolating and characterizing unknown viruses from tumor material. Special attention is placed on the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of such viral infections. Scientists are also working on methods that use viruses to selectively kill cancer cells or as vehicles for introducing therapeutic agents into cells.

The current focuses of tumor-virological research include:

  • Papilloma viruses and their role in cancers of the genital organs, the mouth and throat, and the skin
  • Parvoviruses as direct inhibitors of tumor growth and as gene vectors for cancer treatment
  • Retroviruses (HIV, spumaviruses) for developing specific therapies
  • Anelloviruses (TT viruses) and their effect on the host cell genome
  • Herpesviruses (Epstein-Barr virus) in the development of malignant tumors and as gene vectors for cancer therapy

Research Program G: Translational Cancer Research

This Program is composed of two divisions, Translational Oncology and Preventive Oncology, both of which are located at the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) Heidelberg and equipped by the German Cancer Research Center. Under its umbrella are the Clinical Cooperation Units, which are operated jointly with the University Medical Schools of Heidelberg and Mannheim. The Program also includes a number of other divisions and research groups of the Center that are engaged in translational research.

The program has three main objectives:

  • Supporting the preclinical research of the Center’s translational research portfolio
  • Offering centralized services for the effective preparation and realization of investigator-initiated trials and basic research projects with patient material
  • Facilitating, via the departments of Medical Oncology and Translational Oncology – which are funded jointly by the Heidelberg University Hospitals - patient access for systematic clinical implementation of phase I to IV trials

Great importance is attached to creating a solid infrastructure, such as by obtaining patient material through systematic tumor and serum banking (biobanking), developing regulatory clinical protocols by trial physicians and validated laboratory investigations accompanying trials, as well as biostatistical support and evaluation. The goal is also to speed up implementation in clinical research by overcoming the greatest obstacles that arise between the laboratory workbench and the hospital bed.

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