The closing symposium of the “Apoptosis Deficiency” funding priority of the German Cancer Aid Dr. Mildred Scheel Foundation was held in the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg at the end of March 2009. German Cancer Aid has supported this programme since 1999 with over 15 million euros in funding. A total of 29 research groups at many German institutes and hospitals have received funding.
Apoptosis, i.e. programmed cell death, has been a central topic in cancer research for many years. Many years ago, scientists discovered that the immortality of cancer cells is partially due to the fact that they do not respond to the biological commands to commit suicide. Healthy cells undergo apoptosis when irreparable genetic damage occurs in the cell; their "voluntary" death prevents potential degeneration. In tumour cells, genes that are required to induce apoptosis are often defective. Reduced ability to undergo apoptosis in turn increases the danger of pre-cancerous cells developing into invasive, malignant tumours.
German Cancer Aid has been supporting the "Apoptosis deficiency" priority programme since 1999. The programme is aimed at investigating the role of programmed cell death in cancer. The scientists involved in this project have been looking for new ways to induce tumour cells to undergo apoptosis and to break the resistance of cancer cells to apoptosis commands. The researchers discussed their latest results at the recent symposium held in Heidelberg.
Dr. Min Li-Weber from the German Cancer Research Centre is investigating plant substances that are used for the treatment of cancer in traditional Chinese medicine. The scientist, who is a member of the department led by Professor Dr. Peter Krammer, spokesperson of the funding priority, discovered that two particular substances sensitise apoptosis-resistant leukaemia cells to programmed cell death. Healthy immune cells survive the treatment with these plant substances without being damaged. Dr. Heike Bantel from the Department of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Endocrinology from the Hanover Medical School discovered a new biomarker that enables the response of colon cancer patients to chemotherapy to be monitored: many, but not all, anti-cancer drugs lead to the apoptosis of tumour cells. The newly discovered biomarker, a protein in patients’ blood, indicates whether cancer cells have died and might in future help to identify patients who do not respond to a particular cancer drug and who might benefit from alternative treatment early on during treatment. A decisive factor indicating the progression of acute leukaemias is the ability of cancer cells to trigger apoptosis. Professor Dr. Klaus Michael Debatin, Medical Director of the University Children's Hospital in Ulm, and his team discovered that this ability is usually associated with a better prognosis for patients. In addition, Debatin also reported on a possibility for more effective treatment of brain tumours and neuroblastomas: the scientists are looking for molecular targets to restore the tumour cells’ ability to undergo apoptosis. The symposium also addressed topics such as apoptosis through necrosis and the apoptosis of tumour cells that is triggered by radiotherapy.