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World Cancer Day: Tumour biology is a research focus at the University

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Published on Tuesday, 04 February 2020

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. It accounts for more than 9 million deaths per year, a number which is estimated to rise (Figure 1). In Luxembourg, there are about 3000 new cases of cancer each year. The most frequent types of cancer are breast, lung, prostate, colon and skin cancer. Fundamental and clinical research has significantly improved the life expectancy of cancer patients. Some types cancers, especially when diagnosed early, can now be treated and controlled better.

Cancer is still difficult to treat. Every tumour is unique, heterogeneous and quickly evolving (Figure 2). The Department of Life Sciences and Medicine at the University of Luxembourg strives for excellence in cancer research. More than 70 staff members are organised in 5 research groups, each focusing on specific aspects of basic and translational cancer research. “Cancer is a burning issue in our society. Our mission is to understand the molecular, cellular and genetic determinants that govern tumour formation and disease progression,” says Prof. Iris Behrmann, head of the department.

Cancer at a glance

Figure 1

Addressing cancer’s complexity requires a cross-disciplinary environment and a combination of computational and experimental approaches to improve the understanding of melanoma, colon, breast and liver cancer. By using a combination of various state-of-the-art experimental models as well as clinical samples, the researchers investigate fundamental mechanisms that drive tumour initiation, progression and response to available treatment as well as improvement of therapeutic options.

Advancing cancer therapy

To find better treatments and cures, a lot of effort is put into personalised cancer therapies. Several translational projects of the department, in collaboration with local and international clinical partners, aim at finding treatments that are specifically designed to target individual patients. In this context, Dr. Elisabeth Letellier (Molecular Disease Mechanisms group) and Ass. Prof. Stephanie Kreis (Signal Transduction group) are establishing a collaboration with the newly implemented robotic drug screening facility of the Luxembourg Institute of Health. Hundreds of drugs will be tested directly on cancer patients’ tumours (melanoma and colon cancer). “Drugs that can control the tumour cells could possibly be reported back to the clinic within 4-6 weeks, thus maximising the probability of a successful therapy outcome,” explains Dr. Stephanie Kreis.

Microscopic images of skin cancer cells grown in 2D (left) and 3D (right)

Figure 2: microscopic images of skin cancer cells grown in 2D (left) and 3D (right)

Prof. Daniel Abankwa, head of the recently established Cancer Cell Biology and Drug Discovery group, leads another ambitious project of drug development aiming to establish new treatments for several types of cancers. The team specifically focuses on K-RAS, which is a highly mutated gene in more than 20% of types of cancer. Researchers in this group have recently published a manuscript about the development of novel proof-of-concept inhibitors called Deltaflexins, which can overcome some limitations of previous drugs.

Given that tumour cells use an intricate web of signals to interact with each other and to sustain their growth, the researchers around Prof. Thomas Sauter develop mathematical models to predict how these systems change over time and under varying conditions to ultimately find solutions for therapeutic intervention

A hub of excellence and valued support

The Department of Life Sciences and Medicine benefits from the enthusiasm and commitment of an international team of highly qualified scientists. Graduate education of the next generation researchers is organised in the Doctoral School of Science and Engineering of the Faculty of Science, Technology and Medicine (FSTM) as well as in FNR-funded doctoral training units (DTU). Seven PhD candidates of the department are participants of the DTU “CanBio” which is exclusively dedicated to cancer biology. Apart from research, the department also organises modern Bachelor and Master level teaching programmes in Biology, Systems Biology and Medicine. A specialisation programme in “Oncology” for medical graduates is expected to start in the near future.

Scientists at work (Belval Campus)

Figure 3: Scientists at work (Belval Campus)

The department closely collaborates with major national players in the field of biomedical research (e.g. the Luxembourg Institute of Health, the Integrated Biobank of Luxembourg, the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine, the Laboratoire National de Santé and several hospitals) and with many renowned international institutes.

The often expensive and extensive research projects would not be possible without the generous and continued financial support from the Fondation Cancer, the University of Luxembourg/FSTM and the FNR, European programmes and other private donors and foundations. Together we work towards understanding, controlling and reducing the cancer burden on individuals and society.