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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

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

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.

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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