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ERC Starting Grant for Chong Sun

No. 66 | 22/11/2022

With its "Starting Grants", the European Research Council (ERC) aims to pave the way for excellent young scientists to pursue independent careers. This year, immunologist Chong Sun from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) will receive the prestigious funding: He plans to investigate why therapeutic T cells often fail to infiltrate a tumor and thus develop their full efficacy against cancer cells.

Chong Sun
© Jung/ DKFZ

The funding provided by the European Research Council (ERC) is regarded as an accolade for scientists at all career stages. 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 own research group at a recognized research institution in the EU.

Scientists are working intensively on the development of cellular cancer immunotherapies. For this form of therapy, they take immune cells, mostly T cells, from cancer patients, modify them in the culture dish, and then inject them back into the patients' bloodstream. But despite some success stories, for example in certain forms of blood cancer, these therapies often fall short of expectations.

Evidence has shown that one major reason for the often disappointing efficacy of this treatment is that the therapeutic T cells are unable to infiltrate the solid tumor. With the help of the ERC grant, Chong Sun now wants to elucidate the reasons for this failure. On the one hand, the researcher is focusing on the tumor microenvironment, more specifically the special messenger substances, called chemokines, produced by the cells in the tumor. How cancer hijacks their production? And how to modulate the chemokine production to "attract" or "repel" the migration of immune cells into the tumor?

On the other hand, Chong is putting T cells themselves to the test: Are there built-in mechanisms in T cells that promote and facilitate migration into a tumor? Finally, he wants to find out whether factors that promote or impede T-cell infiltration can be influenced by drugs or gene editing. His goal is to potentially improve the efficacy of T-cell immunotherapies in this way.

Chong Sun first began his studies in biotechnology in 2003 at Nanjing University of Science and Technology, China, and graduated with a master's degree in pharmaceutical science from Utrecht University, Netherlands, in 2010. He then conducted research as a PhD student and later as a postdoctoral fellow at the Netherland Cancer Institute until 2019. Since November 2019, Chong Sun has been leading the Immune Regulation in Cancer junior research group at the German Cancer Research Center.

The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) with its more than 3,000 employees is the largest biomedical research institution in Germany. More than 1,300 scientists at the DKFZ investigate how cancer develops, identify cancer risk factors and search for new strategies to prevent people from developing cancer. They are 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 all questions on cancer.

Jointly with partners from the university hospitals, the DKFZ operates the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) in Heidelberg and Dresden, and the Hopp Children's Cancer Center KiTZ in Heidelberg. In the German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK), one of the six German Centers for Health Research, the DKFZ maintains translational centers at seven university partner locations. NCT and DKTK sites combine excellent university medicine with the high-profile research of the DKFZ. They contribute to the endeavor of transferring promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improving the chances of cancer patients.

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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