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Takeda Oncology Research Award 2018 to Rocio Sotillo

No. 53 | 18/10/2018 | by Koh

A certain form of lung cancer is characterized by two genes that are accidentally fused. The fusion produces a growth signal for the cells. These tumors respond well to a targeted drug that deprives the cancer cells of the growth stimulus. Several molecular variants of cancer-promoting gene fusion exist. Rocio Sotillo of the German Cancer Research Center and the German Center for Lung Research (DZL) has discovered that one of these variants is associated with a more aggressive disease, which also rapidly develops resistance to the cancer drug. For these results Sotillo has now received the Takeda Oncology Research Prize 2018, endowed with 30,000 euros.

Rocio Sotillo
© Jutta Jung/DKFZ

In the genome of "non-small-cell lung cancer", abbreviated to NSCLC, the most common malignant tumor in the lung, researchers often find characteristic carcinogenic changes. Some of these mutations produce specific growth signals and these cells therefore respond well to drugs that block the growth stimulus. One of these mutations bears the bulky name EML4-ALK. It is caused by an incorrectly repaired break in the DNA strand, which accidentally couples the ALK gene directly to the EML4 gene. The cell thereby produces large quantities of the cancer-promoting kinase ALK.

In these cases, doctors can stop cancer growth with inhibitors against ALK. Unfortunately, however, tumor cells often develop resistance to the inhibitors. Little is known about how this happens at the molecular level. "We know that not all EML4-ALK fusions are identical. They differ according to the proportion of the fused EML4 gene," explains Rocio Sotillo from the German Cancer Research Center. The scientist assumes that these differences are responsible for the different courses of the disease.

To find out, Sotillo and her team used the CRISPR-Cas gene scissors to produce three of the most important EML4-ALK fusion variants in the lungs of mice. In these animals, the researchers discovered that one of the variants, "No. 3", has a particularly high potential to induce cancer: Cancer cells of variant No. 3 also rapidly develop resistance to ALK inhibitors and spread earlier into the body.

Sotillo and her team now want to equip human lung cancer cells in the culture dish with the various EML4-ALK variants and test whether variant No. 3 also leads to particularly aggressive tumors in humans. "We now have models that we can use to test different drugs and drug combinations so that we can finally better help patients with lung cancer," said Sotillo.

With the goal of promoting outstanding research in the field of EML4-ALK-fused lung tumors, Takeda Oncology has announced a top-class research award. Sotillo's project, which promises significant clinical improvements in personalized NSCLC therapy, won first prize, endowed with 30,000 euros.

After studying pharmacy, Sotillo received her doctorate from the Spanish National Cancer Center in Madrid in 2002. From 2003 to 2010, she worked as a research fellow at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and from 2010 to 2015 at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Monterotondo. Since 2015, Sotillo has headed the department "Molecular Thoracic Oncology" at the DKFZ.

A picture of Rocio Sotillo is available for download:

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. Images have to be cited as follows: “Source: Jutta Jung/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.

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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