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2017 Brupbacher Cancer Research Prize for Adrian Bird, Guido Kroemer & Laurence Zitvogel

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The prize, donated by Frédérique Brupbacher in memory of her husband, Charles Rodolphe Brupbacher, will be awarded for the thirteenth time in February 2017. Endowed with prize money of CHF 100,000 for each award, the prize is considered one of the most prestigious research distinctions in the international cancer community. The prize goes to three outstanding researchers, this time for groundbreaking research on the impact of epigenetics, cell death, and gut microbiota on the progression of cancer. This research lays important groundwork for improving the understanding of cancer and for developing new, targeted therapies.

Interaction of Genetics and Epigenetics in the Development of Cancer

Adrian Bird, recipient of the first prize, is Professor of Genetics at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology of the University of Edinburgh. His work focuses on the interaction of genetics and epigenetics, an aspect of cancer development that has received little research attention to date. Methyl groups, which are added to the DNA, regulate the activity of numerous genes. The majority of the human genome carries such methyl groups. Within the genom there are also small regions, known as CpG islands, without such epigenetic marks.

In tumor cells, CpG islands are often methylated, and these DNA methylation changes generally trigger an abnormal inactivation of the affected gene. Adrian Bird and his team investigated proteins that bind to CpG islands and influence DNA methylation and other epigenetic characteristics. These proteins, which control the interaction of genome and epigenome, are often deregulated in cancer and may thus play a significant role in oncogenesis.

Influence of the Immune System on the Development and Treatment of Cancer

The second prize is being conferred jointly on physician Giudo Kroemer from the Centre de Recherche des Cordeliers of the Université Paris Descartes and immunologist Laurence Zitvogel from the Laboratory for Tumor Immunology and Immunotherapy of the Gustave Roussy Cancer Center. Their research focuses on how the immune system influences the development and treatment of cancer.

The work of Guido Kroemer focuses on apoptosis – programmed cell death – the process by which cells self-eliminate when they become impaired. A further process, autophagy, plays a significant role in how cells survive the effects of toxic substances, such as during chemotherapy. Kroemer and his team were able to demonstrate that the death of cancer cells can stimulate the immune system, if autophagy has been activated in advance. This reactivates immunogenicity of the tumor cells, thus making them "visible" to defense cells and allowing them to be efficiently eliminated. The type of immune reaction triggered by dying cancer cells is thus decisive for the success of cancer treatment.

The Role of Gut Microbiota in Anti-Tumor Therapies

In various papers, Laurence Zitvogel and her research team demonstrated that gut microbiota not only influences its immediate surroundings, but also affects the immune response to cancer cells in other regions of the body. They further proved that the bacteria strains Escherichia hirae and Barnesiella intestinihominis substantially improve the success of chemotherapy with cyclophosphamide in patients with lung and ovarian cancer. Bacteria from the Bacteroidales, Burkholderiales, and Bifidobacteriales groups also affect tumor micro-environment and enhance the effectiveness of antibody therapies for skin cancer. Until now, it was unknown – and unexpected – that gut microbiota can enhance the body's immune reaction to cancer cells outside of the gut.

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