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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.

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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