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ERC Advanced Grants for Hellmut Augustin and Christof Niehrs

No. 25c3 | 19/04/2018 | by Koh

The European Research Council ERC's Advanced Grants promote visionary projects of fundamental research. This year, Hellmut Augustin (University of Heidelberg and DKFZ) and Christof Niehrs (University of Mainz and DKFZ) received the prestigious funding.

Hellmut Augustin
© DKFZ

The European Research Council, set up in 2007, promotes fundamental research in order to advance visionary projects and open up new interdisciplinary fields of knowledge. For outstanding, already established researchers, the Council annually awards the "ERC Advanced Grants".

One of this year's Grants goes to Hellmut Augustin, who heads the Department of Vascular Oncology and Metastasis, which is located at the Mannheim Medical Faculty of the University of Heidelberg and at the DKFZ.

Augustin's ERC project "AngioMature" focuses on endothelial cells that line the inside of all blood vessels. When passing into adulthood, endothelial cells enter a resting, "quiescent" state, but can reversibly switch to an activated state. For our health it is crucial to maintain a quiescent and organically differentiated layer of endothelial cells in the vessels. Excessive or misdirected activation of endothelial cells can lead to life-threatening diseases - from sepsis to atherosclerosis to cancer.

The aim of the ERC-funded project is to investigate the exact mechanisms of vascular maturation and organ-specific differentiation of endothelial cells at various stages of development of the organism: During vascular development, in the maintenance of stable adult quiescent state and during the aging process. Researchers expect these studies to provide new insights into vital biological processes important to health and healthy aging.

Christof Niehrs
© DKFZ

For the second time, Christof Niehrs receives the prestigious ERC Advanced Grant: The developmental biologist is the founding director of the Institute of Molecular Biology at the University of Mainz and also heads the Department of Molecular Embryology at the DKFZ.

All cells use epigenetic mechanisms to ensure that the right genes are active at the right time. One of the most important epigenetic control mechanisms is that the cell chemically marks its genome in certain sites - with small methyl groups - and thus shuts down the gene in question. To reactivate it, the label must be removed by DNA methylases. How this process is controlled, is still poorly understood.

With the help of the ERC grant, Niehrs and colleagues now want to examine whether the so-called "long noncoding RNAs" (lncRNA) play an important role in this process. These RNA molecules, which do not encode information for the construction of proteins, could, like a ZIP code, direct the DNA methylases to the corresponding positions in the genome, so the assumption. Christof Niehr's goal is to better understand how this epigenetic regulation works and controls important steps in development, such as the differentiation of stem cells. In addition, Niehrs wants to investigate whether intentionally reactivating genes by means of a lncRNA-driven demethylation could be a new approach to treating diseases.

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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