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Cancer as system error – International conference at the German Cancer Research Center

No. 42 | 24/09/2015 | by Koh

Inflammation, blood supply, or metabolism: Many body functions influence cancer development or spread. From September 28th to 30th, scientists from around the globe met at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg to exchange information about the interplay between body and cancer. The German Cancer Research Center and the Center for Molecular Biology of Heidelberg University (ZMBH) are jointly hosting the conference “Forum 2015: Tumor Microenvironment, Metabolism & Metastasis” as part of the DKFZ-ZMBH Alliance Forum series.


In the past, malignant tumors were often regarded as diseases that are restricted to a specific part of the body. Today, however, scientists understand that in most cases cancer is a systemic disease, i.e., it affects the whole organism.

Cancer cells constantly exchange signals with their microenvironment: They send out signals to healthy cells of the body and receive messages from the organism in return. By this means, cancer cells make sure that blood vessels grow into the tumor. On the one hand, these blood vessels supply the tumor with nutrients and facilitate its metastatic spread. On the other hand, these vessels also allow immune cells to enter and attack the tumor – or, reversely, to support its growth.

However, not only a tumor’s immediate environment but also more distant parts of the body may influence the development, growth and spread of tumors. Changes in metabolism and disorders of the immune system, for example, have a major impact on the progression of cancer.

“We have invited the world’s leading scientists in this exciting research field to Heidelberg,” says Hellmut Augustin, who is one of the conference´s organizers.

Douglas Hanahan, director of the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research in Lausanne, gave a talk at the conference. Hanahan, who is the author of the most cited cancer research publication ever (“Hallmarks of Cancer”), reported on the influence of inflammation on the effectiveness of immunotherapies against cancer.

Inflammation was also the topic of Mathias Heikenwälder´s talk, who has been recruited to the DKFZ most recently. Heikenwälder has investigated at the molecular level how inflammatory changes in the liver (such as hepatitis) cause liver cancer.

Celeste Simon, Scientific Director of the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, explained how cancer cells adapt to the low level of oxygen inside a tumor and, thus, additionally promote cancer growth.

More than 300 participants attended the conference entitled “Forum 2015: Tumor Microenvironment, Metabolism & Metastasis”. The conference was part of a forum series that is organized by the strategic alliance of the DKFZ and the Center for Molecular Biology of Heidelberg University (ZMBH).

The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) with its more than 3,000 employees is the largest biomedical research institution in Germany. More than 1,300 scientists at the DKFZ investigate how cancer develops, identify cancer risk factors and search for new strategies to prevent people from developing cancer. They are developing new methods to diagnose tumors more precisely and treat cancer patients more successfully. The DKFZ's Cancer Information Service (KID) provides patients, interested citizens and experts with individual answers to all questions on cancer.

Jointly with partners from the university hospitals, the DKFZ operates the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) in Heidelberg and Dresden, and the Hopp Children's Cancer Center KiTZ in Heidelberg. In the German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK), one of the six German Centers for Health Research, the DKFZ maintains translational centers at seven university partner locations. NCT and DKTK sites combine excellent university medicine with the high-profile research of the DKFZ. They contribute to the endeavor of transferring promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improving the chances of cancer patients.

The DKFZ is 90 percent financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and 10 percent by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers.


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