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Triple ERC success for DKFZ junior researchers

The European Research Council (ERC) awards Starting Grants to support excellent young scientists when they are starting an independent science career. In this year's round of proposals, three scientists from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) have been chosen at once for the prestigious award: Ana Banito, Fabian Erdel and Moritz Mall.

Ana Banito © Fernando Picarra

"This is a great success for our three young colleagues to whom we offer our warmest congratulations," said DKFZ Chairman and Scientific Director Michael Baumann. "The fact that we can proudly announce three awardees of the prestigious ERC Starting Grant at once is wonderful evidence of how attractive our Center is for young research talents."

Two of the three awardees have only recently been recruited to the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) from renowned international institutions. Ana Banito moved to Heidelberg from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Banito now leads a junior research group at the "Hopp Children's Cancer Center at the NCT Heidelberg" (KiTZ), a joint institution of Heidelberg University Hospital and the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ).

Banito is an expert on the biology of sarcomas, a group of malignant tumors that can arise from a great variety of tissues of the body. In children, sarcomas account for 15 to 20 percent of all cancer cases. Like in adults, they are very difficult to treat in children. A number of characteristic alterations driving malignant growth in cancer cells are known in the genome of sarcoma cells. Banito now plans to use genetic engineering to imitate these alterations in mice and subsequently study the effectiveness of agents to stop cancer growth in these animals. Additionally, Banito is studying the role of aberrant regulation of so called epigenetic modifications on childhood sarcoma.

Glossary

  • Desoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a double-stranded, helical macromolecule encoding the genetic information of an organism.
  • A gene is a hereditary unit which has effects on the traits and thus on the phenotype of an organism. Part on the DNA which contains genetic information for the synthesis of a protein or functional RNA (e.g. tRNA).
  • Translation in a biological context is the process in which the base sequence of mRNA is translated into the amino acid sequence of a protein. This process takes place in the ribosomes. Based on a single mRNA molecule, many protein molecules can be synthesised.
  • A neuron is a nerve cell. A nerve cell consists of a body, an axon and dendrites.
  • A tumour is a swelling of a tissue caused by abnormal cell growth, which can be benign or malignant. Benign tumours are local swellings, whereas malign tumours may seed off and spread into other tissues, causing secondary growths (metastases).
  • Molecular biology deals with the structure, biosynthesis and function of DNA and RNA and their interaction with each other and with proteins. Molecular data can lead to an improved understanding of the reasons for diseases and can help to improve the mode of action of drugs.
  • Computer tomography (CT) is a imaging technique to display the structures within the body. Therefore, radiograms are taken from different directions and are analysed by a computer to get a three-dimensional image.
Fabian Erdel © Jutta Jung/DKFZ

These epigenetic modifications are used by the cell to safeguard its identity. The modifications cause that only genes are active which the cell needs for its specific tasks. But how do cells succeed in placing all tags at the right sites in the DNA, particularly after cell division?

This is a question that Fabian Erdel now plans to pursue. Erdel, a physicist and molecular biologist, undertook his PhD at the DKFZ. Following his doctorate, he worked in two post-doctoral positions, one at the DKFZ and the other at Columbia University in New York. In 2016, Erdel took on the post of team leader at the DKFZ. Supported by the ERC grant, he now plans to use methods of molecular biophysics and synthetic biology to build an artificial system for studying and manipulating the spread and transfer of epigenetic modifications. Using this system, Erdel seeks to elucidate how faulty modifications can accumulate in cancer cells and how this can be prevented.

Moritz Mall © Jutta Jung/DKFZ

Why is a neuron a neuron and why does it not develop other cellular properties such as the ability to contract like a muscle cell? Moritz Mall also investigates these questions of cellular identity. He studies how cells permanently repress genetic programs that do not match their own identity by so-called "repressor proteins". In his work, Mall focuses particularly on neurons. The reason for this is that in autism and schizophrenia as well as in brain cancer, repressors in neurons have often undergone mutations and have become dysfunctional. Mall, who is a molecular biologist, now seeks to unravel the potential link between the loss of repressor function and the onset of these common and severe diseases.

This year, Mall has started leading a junior research group at the Hector Institute for Translational Brain Research (HITBR), which is a partnership of the DKFZ and the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim. Mall, who is a biologist, undertook his PhD at EMBL in Heidelberg and subsequently pursued research at Stanford University in California.

The ERC Starting Independent Researcher Grants are awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) to support talented young researchers at the early stage of their career when they are starting their own independent research team or program in a European country. Starting Grants comprise EUR 1.5 million for a period of five years. The prestigious research grant is awarded in a highly competitive process in which only one in approximately eight proposals is chosen.

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