Swiss Bridge Award for research on breast cancer stem cells
Andreas Trumpp from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and Heidelberg Institute for Stem Cell Technology and Experimental Medicine (HI-STEM) has been awarded this year’s Swiss Bridge Award for his research on cancer stem cells. He shares the budget of 500,000 Swiss francs that comes with the award with Joerg Huelsken from the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne. Trumpp plans to use the money to finance a large-scale project that aims to characterize breast cancer stem cells in the next three years. The goal is to develop novel combination therapies that are also effective against metastases. Trumpp will pursue this project in collaboration with Andreas Schneeweiss of the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) Heidelberg.
Cancer stem cells are usually resistant to conventional therapy regimens such as chemotherapy. Once these cells have entered the bloodstream, metastases may arise from them. Using optimized techniques, scientists are now able to isolate these rare circulating blood stem cells from patients’ blood samples in sufficient quantities and to study them in detail. These analyses will provide information about the underlying genetic changes and about the specific RNA molecules and proteins that are produced in circulating cancer stem cells as opposed to “normal” cancer cells and healthy mammalian cells. In addition, the researchers will analyze the so-called “methylome”, i.e., the distribution of methyl groups in the DNA of the cancer stem cells. These chemical modifications influence gene activity and, thus, play a major role in carcinogenesis.
Blood samples from cancer patients contain not only cancer stem cells and “normal” tumor cells but also DNA fragments from destroyed tumor cells. The total molecular characterization of all tumor components in the blood is called “liquid biopsy”. Based on this liquid biopsy, researchers hope to obtain an exceptionally detailed molecular picture of a cancer. “Finally, we have succeeded in optimizing the efficiency of the relevant technologies and methods that make such a comprehensive isolation and analysis of circulating cancer stem cells possible,” says Trumpp, adding: “In further steps, we will be able to use simple blood samples to survey therapy-induced changes in the cancer cells over the whole course of the disease.” Normally, researchers use tumor material from surgery for this purpose. “Of course, this is impossible to do at regular intervals,” he emphasized.
The scientists hope to use cancer stem cell analysis to identify characteristics that facilitate better diagnosis and prognosis of the disease. If specific characteristics of cancer stem cells are known, physicians can apply specific drugs to fight them. Ideally, therapy then is selectively effective against cancer stem cells, thus also preventing metastasis. With the goal of testing novel treatment approaches, Trumpp’s research group is also developing so-called “organoids”. “Under certain conditions, stem cells that have been isolated from a patient’s blood form small three-dimensional tumors in the culture dish,” Trumpp explains. “Then we could rapidly test the effectiveness of various therapies on each patient’s tumor cells already in the lab.”
Andreas Trumpp studied molecular biology at Erlangen and Freiburg Universities, earned his PhD at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg in 1992 and moved to the University of California, San Francisco, in the following year. From 2000 to 2008, Trumpp headed the “Genetics and Stem Cell Laboratory” at the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research in Lausanne. Since 2008, he has been head of DKFZ’s Division of Stem Cells and Cancer and Managing Director of the Heidelberg Institute for Stem Cell Technology and Experimental Medicine (HI-STEM), which is a project supported by the Dietmar Hopp Foundation. In September of this year, Trumpp was honored for his outstanding research on blood stem cells with the McCulloch and Till Award in Kyoto by the International Society of Experimental Hematology (ISEH). In 2014, Trumpp’s research group had demonstrated the promising potential of his new project. The scientists isolated and characterized healthy stem cells from blood samples in much the same way as they now plan to do with breast cancer stem cells. The results were published in the specialist journal “Cell Stem Cell”.
The Swiss Bridge Award, one of the most prestigious European research awards, was established in 2000 and includes a budget of 500,000 Swiss francs. Founded in 1997 with the support of the Swiss Cancer League, the Swiss Bridge Foundation finances the award with the aid of private donors and foundations. Its chief goal is to support first-class national and international research projects to fight cancer. This year’s award presentation celebration took place on November 3rd in Zurich.
A picture of the prize winner is available on the Internet at:
The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) with its more than 3,000 employees is the largest biomedical research institute in Germany. At DKFZ, more than 1,000 scientists investigate how cancer develops, identify cancer risk factors and endeavor to find new strategies to prevent people from getting cancer. They develop novel approaches to make tumor diagnosis more precise and treatment of cancer patients more successful. The staff of the Cancer Information Service (KID) offers information about the widespread disease of cancer for patients, their families, and the general public. Jointly with Heidelberg University Hospital, DKFZ has established the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) Heidelberg, where promising approaches from cancer research are translated into the clinic. In the German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK), one of six German Centers for Health Research, DKFZ maintains translational centers at seven university partnering sites. Combining excellent university hospitals with high-profile research at a Helmholtz Center is an important contribution to improving the chances of cancer patients. DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of National Research Centers, with ninety percent of its funding coming from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the remaining ten percent from the State of Baden-Württemberg.