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Foijer: 'Cancer cells often make mistakes in the dividing of their chromosomes. This is called chromosomal instability. Our previous studies show that these errors in healthy cells activate the immune system, but cancer cells bypass this. We are going to investigate how cancer cells do this to find ways for the immune system to eliminate these messy cancer cells as well.'
Over the next few years, Foijer and his team will investigate how chromosomal instability occurs and what effect it has on the immune system. Previous studies show that beginning tumours with chromosomal instability activate an inflammatory response, but how this response occurs and how tumours evade this inflammatory response further along in their development is not yet clear. That is what Foijer wants to unravel, in this he is looking particularly at underlying molecular mechanisms. 'If we better understand how advanced chromosomally unstable tumours evade the immune system, we hope that with that knowledge we can invent clever ways to reactivate the immune system.'
In recent years, Foijer's team has been investigating the differences between cancers with and without chromosomal instability in mouse models. 'As the most important difference, we found that cancer cells with chromosomal instability managed to bypass the inflammatory response that chromosomal instability normally causes in healthy cells. We have roughly mapped the changes in underlying biological mechanisms and can do so much more precisely thanks to this grant. This is necessary to subsequently translate this knowledge into new cancer therapies.'
Thanks to this grant, the researchers can take another important step: they are developing new mouse models for breast cancer, a type of cancer that often shows chromosomal instability. 'We will develop models for early tumours, where the inflammatory response caused by chromosomal instability is still intact, and for late tumours, where the tumours bypass the inflammatory response. We will then compare how the immune system responds to these early and late tumours and determine which immune cells are important for recognising chromosomally unstable cancer cells. This will give us an accurate idea of how the immune system recognises chromosomally unstable cancers initially and how these cancer cells eventually manage to hide from immune cells.'
Thus, to eliminate cancer cells that bypass the immune system, researchers need to outsmart the cancer cells. This may be achieved by reactivating the immune system. Should the researchers manage to do this, it offers hope for many patients. Chromosomal instability, after all, occurs in 80% of cancers.
Vici is one of the largest individual science grants in the Netherlands and is aimed at advanced researchers who are free to propose their own research project for funding. Together with the Veni and Vidi grants, the Vici funding is part of the NWO Talent Programme (formerly: the Innovation Impulse). The Vici is intended for highly experienced researchers who have successfully demonstrated their ability to develop their own innovative line of research and can act as a coach for young researchers. The funding offers the researcher the opportunity to build up his/her own research group, often in anticipation of a structural professorship position.
A total of 34 scientists have received grants. Want to know more? Visit www.nwo.nl