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Swiss Bridge Award for research on breast cancer stem cells

No. 50 | 04/11/2015 | by Ohm

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.

Andreas Trumpp

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:

Source: DKFZ

With more than 3,000 employees, the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) is Germany’s largest biomedical research institute. DKFZ scientists identify cancer risk factors, investigate how cancer progresses and develop new cancer prevention strategies. They are also 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 questions relating to cancer.

To transfer promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improve the prognosis of cancer patients, the DKFZ cooperates with excellent research institutions and university hospitals throughout Germany:

  • National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT, 6 sites)
  • German Cancer Consortium (DKTK, 8 sites)
  • Hopp Children's Cancer Center (KiTZ) Heidelberg
  • Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON Mainz) - A Helmholtz Institute of the DKFZ
  • DKFZ-Hector Cancer Institute at the University Medical Center Mannheim
  • National Cancer Prevention Center (jointly with German Cancer Aid)
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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