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High award for groundbreaking findings on brain tumors

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High award for groundbreaking findings on brain tumors

Wednesday, February 21, 2024, 2:15 p.m

Scientists from the University of Heidelberg, the University Hospital of Heidelberg and the German Cancer Research Center discovered how nerve cells in the brain establish contact with the tumor cells of glioblastoma and thus fuel their spread. The team has now been awarded the highly endowed “BIAL Award in Biomedicine” by the Portuguese BIAL Foundation. The scientists received the award from the Portuguese Minister of Health at a ceremony in Lisbon on February 20th.

The Heidelberg scientists’ results shed a whole new light on the interaction between brain tumors and nerve tissue: healthy nerve cells in the brain establish contact with the tumor cells of glioblastomas and thus drive the growth of these incurable brain tumors. For these groundbreaking findings, published in the journal “Nature” in 2019, the team around Varun Venkataramani, Frank Winkler and Thomas Kuner, who research at the Heidelberg Medical Faculty at Heidelberg University, will receive the “BIAL Award in Biomedicine” on February 20, 2024. excellent. The prize, worth 300,000 euros, is awarded every two years by the Portuguese BIAL Foundation and recognizes a scientific discovery in the field of biomedicine of exceptional quality and scientific relevance.

The Heidelberg scientists accepted the award at a ceremony from the Portuguese Minister of Health Manuel Pizarro on behalf of all 29 authors of the article.

Glioblastomas are highly aggressive tumors of the brain and are currently incurable. Despite intensive treatment with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, those affected usually die within two years. The team led by Frank Winkler, working group leader in the Clinical Cooperation Unit for Neuro-Oncology at Heidelberg University Hospital (UKHD) and the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), discovered a reason for this back in 2015: The glioblastoma cells are connected to each other by long cell processes and grow into the healthy ones like a mushroom network brain. On the one hand, this network cannot be removed surgically, on the other hand, the cells use these connections to exchange important substances and thus protect themselves from the damage caused by the therapy.

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As collaborators with the enemy cells, Varun Venkataramani uncovered the healthy nerve cells of the diseased brain during his research in the laboratories of Frank Winkler and Thomas Kuner, head of the Functional Neuroanatomy Department at the Institute of Anatomy and Cell Biology: discovered under the electron microscope and with other special microscopic techniques He shows that the nerve cells come into close contact with the tumor cells and form cell-cell contacts, so-called synapses. They also pass on excitation signals to the long cell processes of the glioblastoma cells. This is a driving force for tumor growth and the swarming of tumor cells into the brain tissue. “We currently assume that brain activity supports the spread of glioblastomas,” says Varun Venkataramani.

The researchers carried out their studies on tumors from human glioblastoma cells that they transferred to mice, cell cultures with human nerve and tumor cells, and tissue samples from patients. Among other things, they used a wide range of modern microscopy techniques to image the micrometer-sized synapses and the signal transmission to the tumor cells. “It was only with such a wide range of methods that we were able to show that the cell-cell contacts on the nerve cell side are actually normal excitatory synapses that function in the same way and can also be inhibited with the same active ingredients,” says Thomas Kuner. “That opened a door into clinical application.”

In animal experiments, the signal transmission from nerve cells to tumor cells could be interrupted using, among other things, a drug that is used in epilepsy. In mice that received this drug, glioblastoma grew significantly more slowly. “We didn’t stop at this point, but worked quickly to get a corresponding clinical study underway. Since January 2024, the first patients with recurrent glioblastoma have been receiving the epilepsy drug before the operation as part of this study,” says Frank Winkler happily and hopes that the results from 2019 may soon be able to support the therapy of those affected. Up to 66 patients across Germany will take part in the study by the UKHD and the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) Heidelberg.

There is now increasing scientific evidence that the nervous system could also play a central role in other types of cancer. For the scientists Venkataramani, Winkler and Kuner, the award-winning work marks the cornerstone of a new research area, “Cancer Neuroscience”, which aims to explore the complex interaction between the nervous system and cancer. “Cancer neuroscience will become increasingly important in cancer research in the future. For example, we will do our part in the special research area “UNITE GLIOBLASTOMA – Overcoming the therapy resistance of glioblastomas (SFB1389)” and in other planned research collaborations,” says Winkler. The SFB UNITE GLIOBLASTOMA is coordinated from Heidelberg, the speaker is Wolfgang Wick, Medical Director of the Neurological Clinic of the UKHD and Head of the Clinical Cooperation Unit “Neur-oncology” of the UKHD and DKFZ.

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Source: UKHD press release

With more than 3,000 employees, the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) is the largest biomedical research institution in Germany. At the DKFZ, scientists research how cancer develops, record cancer risk factors and look for new strategies that prevent people from developing cancer. They are developing new methods with which tumors can be diagnosed more precisely and cancer patients can be treated more successfully. At the DKFZ Cancer Information Service (KID), those affected, interested parties and specialist groups can receive individual answers to all questions about cancer.

In order to transfer promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improve the chances of patients, the DKFZ operates translation centers together with excellent university hospitals and research institutions throughout Germany:

National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT, 6 locations)

German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK, 8 locations)

Hopp Children’s Tumor 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 (together with German Cancer Aid)

The DKFZ is financed 90 percent by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and 10 percent by the state of Baden-Württemberg and is a member of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers.

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