Press and Public Relations

He Who Dares Wins – Million Euro Funding for DKFZ Researcher

No. 05 | 11/02/2010 | by (Koh)

The European Research Council will provide funding of 2.4 million euro over the next four years to support a research project of Christof Niehrs at the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ). Niehrs investigates the processes of reactivation of silenced genes in cells. Disruption of this mechanism can cause cancer and other diseases.

Prof. Christof Niehrs

The Advanced Grants of the European Research Council (ERC) are intended to support research projects with a chance of yielding significant new findings while also involving taking high risks. After all, ambitious projects which contribute to answering important questions in science may sometimes involve huge efforts and still lead nowhere. Funded projects are required to be pioneering and be conducted by scientists who are leaders in their respective field of research. All these criteria are met by cell and evolutionary biologist Professor Dr. Christof Niehrs, whose scientific work at the German Cancer Research Center will now be funded by an ERC grant of € 2.4 million over a four-year period.

A living organism regulates many of its functions by switching off genes by attaching chemical labels. In this process called epigenetic regulation, labeling with methyl groups plays an important role. If something goes wrong here, then it is often the ‘cancer brakes’ which are silenced so that cell division gets out of control.

While the process of how methyl groups are attached has been well described, the reverse process, i.e. the removal of a methyl group, was not understood until recent discoveries by Christof Niehrs and his colleagues at DKFZ. The investigators identified a key player in what is called demethylation. This protein takes care that methylated gene building blocks are cut out and replaced by unlabeled building blocks. Once the labels are removed from a gene, it is reactivated and can fulfill its function in the cell.

This result has uncovered a link that was totally unknown until now. So far, biologists believed that DNA repair is responsible solely for repairing defects in the genetic material. However, the process of cutting out methylated gene building blocks shows that the cellular repair system plays a much more comprehensive role and is also decisive for the activity of individual genes.

Epigenetic gene regulation is crucial for the development of an organism: Regulation defects lead to the onset of many diseases. “We will now use the ERC funds to investigate possibilities of reactivating silenced genes and the role of the DNA repair system in this process. Interfering in epigenetic regulation is considered a promising approach for developing new therapies – this is a very hot topic, not only in cancer research,” said Niehrs explaining the relevance of his research plans.

A picture of Christof Niehrs is available on the Internet at
Photography: Yan de Andres

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.


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