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Award-winning finding in the cancer genome

No. 03a | 28/01/2016 | by Koh

Volker Hovestadt is being honored with the Helmholtz Doctoral Prize for Health Research. He receives the award for his PhD thesis, which he completed last year “with highest distinction” at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ). Hovestadt is a bioinformatics researcher who is analyzing the genome of pediatric brain cancer in order to find out which alterations drive cancer growth. In medulloblastoma, the most common type of childhood brain cancer, he discovered a new epigenetic regulatory mechanism that can lead to abnormally high levels of transcription of cancer-promoting genes.

Volker Hovestadt

Volker Hovestadt receives the Helmholtz Doctoral Prize for his outstanding achievements in the field of health research. The Helmholtz Association awards its doctoral prizes to recognize academic achievements as well as to offer an incentive for talented young researchers to pursue a career in academia.

Hovestadt pursued research for his PhD thesis in Peter Lichter‘s group at the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) in Heidelberg. He achieved remarkable results in the analysis of epigenetic changes in medulloblastoma, the most common type of malignant brain tumor in children. Unlike most other forms of cancer, it exhibits very few mutations in growth-promoting genes. Thus the reasons for the aggressive growth behavior of medulloblastomas have been unclear. Hovestedt and his colleagues discovered that in medulloblastoma often the cancer-causing genes are transcribed at much higher levels than normal. This is due, among other things, to a novel epigenetic mechanism that regulates gene activity by chemical labels in the DNA.

This novel regulation system, which Hovestadt recently published in the journal “Nature”, is a finding of particular importance. The number of methylation groups found in the so-called promoter region, i.e., the region of DNA that stimulates the transcription of a gene, has been considered a crucial factor in gene activity. However, Hovestadt’s new results show that methyl groups within genes are also relevant to their activation. This type of gene regulation has never been observed, neither in other types of tumor nor in healthy tissue, at least not to such a marked extent.

By analyzing the epigenetic changes in the whole tumor genome, Hovestadt and his colleagues were able to obtain a comprehensive picture of gene-regulatory networks in medulloblastoma. They also identified molecular targets for new treatment strategies against this dangerous type of brain cancer.

Hovestadt, who completed his doctoral studies only a short while ago, already is author and co-author in over 30 specialist publications in the field of cancer genome analysis. After earning his PhD in December 2014, he has continued his research at the DKFZ. In February 2016, he will start pursuing research as a postdoc at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital in the U.S.A.

The Helmholtz Association annually awards prizes in each of its six research fields. Each award is accompanied by a monetary prize of €5000. In addition, each award winner is granted an allowance of up to €12,000 for a six-month stay at a research institute abroad. The President of the Helmholtz Association, Otmar D. Wiestler, will present the awards at the association's annual reception on January 27 in Berlin.

A picture of Volker Hovestadt is available at:

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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