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Two ERC Starting Grants to DKFZ junior scientists

No. 52 | 04/09/2020 | by Thiel

The European Research Council (ERC) grants are considered a particularly honorable distinction for scientists at all career levels. With its "Starting Grants", the ERC aims to pave the way for excellent young scientists to pursue an independent career. This year, two scientists at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) will receive the renowned grant: Pei-Chi Wei wants to investigate the role of DNA breaks in the development of the brain. Darjus Tschaharganeh plans to use the funds to decipher the significance of altered chromosome numbers in the development of cancer and cancer therapy.

Pei-Chi Wei
© Jutta Jung/DKFZ

With its ERC Starting Grants, the European Research Council (ERC) supports talented young scientists. The funds of 1.5 million euros for up to five years are intended to support the establishment of an independent working group at a renowned research institution in the EU. The ERC Starting Grants are awarded in a highly competitive procedure. Only one in ten applicants is successful.

One of the young talents selected this year is Pei-Chi Wei, who was born in Taiwan. She receives the ERC grants to study the role of DNA breaks in developmental processes and in brain diseases. Under the stress of rapid and frequent cell division, a cell's DNA can literally break. To form the 80 billion neurons of the human brain, stem and progenitor cells must divide tens of thousands of times. While changes in DNA increase genomic diversity in the brain, they can also lead to diseases. Wei would like to better understand the origin of DNA breaks and find out whether their damage or benefit outweighs their effect. Her experiments are designed to show how cell division-related stress affects neuronal precursor cells, whether it triggers DNA breaks and what influence these breaks have on brain development. With these experiments Wei hopes to gain insights into neuropsychiatric disorders and the development of brain tumors.

Wei studied zoology and immunology in Taiwan before she received her PhD from the Taiwan National Defense Center. Afterwards she worked at the Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan, the Boston Children's Hospital, and at Harvard Medical School. Since 2019 she has been heading a junior research group at DKFZ as a Helmholtz Young Investigator.

Darjus Tschaharganeh
© Jutta Jung/DKFZ

The physician Darjus Tschaharganeh plans to investigate the effects of altered copy numbers in tumor genomes on the course of cancer development. In this frequently occurring phenomenon, entire chromosome arms are deleted or duplicated. This can affect hundreds of genes simultaneously and influence the biological properties as well as the therapy of the tumor. Until now, there has been a lack of suitable methods to study such genome alterations. Tschaharganeh now wants to use the CRISPR "gene scissors" to approach the topic from two sides. On the one hand, he plans to delete entire chromosome segments in liver organoids. Organoids are three-dimensionally growing cells that form a "miniature liver" in the culture dish, which reproduces the organ in its structure and function. On the other hand, novel mouse models will provide information on the effects of the duplication of cancer-driving genes.

Tschaharganeh studied human medicine in Rostock and Aachen. After research stays at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the university hospitals in Heidelberg and Aachen, he has been heading a junior research group as Helmholtz Young Investigator at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and the Institute of Pathology at Heidelberg University Hospital since 2016.

Pictures are 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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