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Triple ERC success for DKFZ junior researchers

No. 46 | 14/08/2018 | by Koh

The European Research Council (ERC) awards Starting Grants to support excellent young scientists when they are starting an independent science career. In this year's round of proposals, three scientists from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) have been chosen at once for the prestigious award: Ana Banito, Fabian Erdel and Moritz Mall.

Ana Banito
© Fernando Picarra

"This is a great success for our three young colleagues to whom we offer our warmest congratulations," said DKFZ Chairman and Scientific Director Michael Baumann. "The fact that we can proudly announce three awardees of the prestigious ERC Starting Grant at once is wonderful evidence of how attractive our Center is for young research talents."

Two of the three awardees have only recently been recruited to the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) from renowned international institutions. Ana Banito moved to Heidelberg from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Banito now leads a junior research group at the "Hopp Children's Cancer Center at the NCT Heidelberg" (KiTZ), a joint institution of Heidelberg University Hospital and the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ).

Banito is an expert on the biology of sarcomas, a group of malignant tumors that can arise from a great variety of tissues of the body. In children, sarcomas account for 15 to 20 percent of all cancer cases. Like in adults, they are very difficult to treat in children. A number of characteristic alterations driving malignant growth in cancer cells are known in the genome of sarcoma cells. Banito now plans to use genetic engineering to imitate these alterations in mice and subsequently study the effectiveness of agents to stop cancer growth in these animals. Additionally, Banito is studying the role of aberrant regulation of so called epigenetic modifications on childhood sarcoma.

Fabian Erdel
© Jutta Jung/DKFZ

These epigenetic modifications are used by the cell to safeguard its identity. The modifications cause that only genes are active which the cell needs for its specific tasks. But how do cells succeed in placing all tags at the right sites in the DNA, particularly after cell division?

This is a question that Fabian Erdel now plans to pursue. Erdel, a physicist and molecular biologist, undertook his PhD at the DKFZ. Following his doctorate, he worked in two post-doctoral positions, one at the DKFZ and the other at Columbia University in New York. In 2016, Erdel took on the post of team leader at the DKFZ. Supported by the ERC grant, he now plans to use methods of molecular biophysics and synthetic biology to build an artificial system for studying and manipulating the spread and transfer of epigenetic modifications. Using this system, Erdel seeks to elucidate how faulty modifications can accumulate in cancer cells and how this can be prevented.

Moritz Mall
© Jutta Jung/DKFZ

Why is a neuron a neuron and why does it not develop other cellular properties such as the ability to contract like a muscle cell? Moritz Mall also investigates these questions of cellular identity. He studies how cells permanently repress genetic programs that do not match their own identity by so-called "repressor proteins". In his work, Mall focuses particularly on neurons. The reason for this is that in autism and schizophrenia as well as in brain cancer, repressors in neurons have often undergone mutations and have become dysfunctional. Mall, who is a molecular biologist, now seeks to unravel the potential link between the loss of repressor function and the onset of these common and severe diseases.

This year, Mall has started leading a junior research group at the Hector Institute for Translational Brain Research (HITBR), which is a partnership of the DKFZ and the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim. Mall, who is a biologist, undertook his PhD at EMBL in Heidelberg and subsequently pursued research at Stanford University in California.

The ERC Starting Independent Researcher Grants are awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) to support talented young researchers at the early stage of their career when they are starting their own independent research team or program in a European country. Starting Grants comprise EUR 1.5 million for a period of five years. The prestigious research grant is awarded in a highly competitive process in which only one in approximately eight proposals is chosen.

A picture of Ana Banito is available for download at:
Source: Fernando Picarra

A picture of Fabian Erdel is available for download at:
Source: Jutta Jung/DKFZ

A picture of Moritz Mall is available for download at:
Source: Jutta Jung/DKFZ

Note on use of images related to press releases
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.
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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