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European excellence grant for DKFZ researcher

No. 09 | 14/02/2018 | by Koh

The ERC Consolidator Grants by the European Research Council (ERC) support excellent researchers to help them consolidate their independent career. Ana Martin-Villalba from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) has now received this prestigious ERC grant. Martin-Villalba will use the €2 million grant to investigate how repair processes can be stimulated in the adult brain following injury or disease. Martin-Villalba plans to specifically activate the development potential of stem cells in the brain to replace lost brain cells.

Ana Martin-Villalba
© Tobias Schwerdt/DKFZ

Our brain is composed of numerous different types of nerve cells (neurons) and a wide variety of glial cells that have important supportive and regulatory tasks. While brain stem cells in the embryo give rise to this diversity of cell types, this can no longer be accomplished in the adult brain. Although progenitor cells are present, they can no longer differentiate into the various cell types.

Martin-Villalba now intends to find out why this is so. During her whole scientific career, the scientist has studied possibilities to stimulate repair processes in the central nervous system (CNS). Just recently, she discovered that injuries of the CNS lead to characteristic changes in the gene activity of brain stem cells. This causes the stem cells to awaken from their dormant state, in which they normally protect themselves from harmful environmental influences. In addition, injuries activate specific gene enhancers that are important players in developmental biology and that are normally silenced by the presence of epigenetic labels.

In her ERC funded work, Martin Villalba plans to investigate how these gene enhancers can be used to stimulate the complete development program in stem cells that gives rise to the variety of mature brain cells. A particular challenge in this is to proceed very specifically so as not to cause cancer by excessive activation.

Using most advanced methods, Martin-Villalba plans to trace the development paths of individual stem cells. The goal is to influence the brain stem cells in such a way that they renew brain areas which have been destroyed as a result of injury or disease.

Ana Martin-Villalba studied Medicine at the University of Murcia, Spain, and in Leeds, United Kingdom. She graduated in 1995 and earned a PhD degree in 1998 at Heidelberg University, where she had studied the role of death ligands (CD95L, TNF and TRAIL) in apoptosis in the human brain after a stroke. Following clinical work at Heidelberg University Hospital and a post as a project leader in Peter Krammer's department at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), Martin-Villalba built up the DKFZ Junior Research Group "Molecular Neurobiology", which was converted into a department in 2011.

Martin-Villalba has previously been honored for her research results with the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize for Young Researchers, the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize of the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Walther and Christine Richtzenhain Prize.

A picture of Ana Martin-Villalba is available for download:

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Use is free of charge. The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) permits one-time use in the context of reporting about the topic covered in the press release. Images have to be cited as follows: "Source: Tobias Schwerdt/DKFZ".
Distribution of images to third parties is not permitted unless prior consent has been obtained from DKFZ's Press Office (phone: ++49-(0)6221 42 2854, E-mail: Any commercial use is prohibited.

The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) with its more than 3,000 employees is the largest biomedical research institution in Germany. At DKFZ, more than 1,300 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. DKFZ’s Cancer Information Service (KID) provides individual answers to all questions about cancer for patients, the general public, and health care professionals. Jointly with partners from Heidelberg University Hospital, DKFZ runs the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) located in Heidelberg and Dresden, and, also in Heidelberg, the Hopp Children’s Cancer Center (KiTZ). In the German Cancer Consortium (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 at the NCT and DKTK sites is an important contribution to the endeavor of translating promising approaches from cancer research into the clinic in order to improve 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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