Celebrated last month at Madrid´s Prado Museum, the Spanish Association against Cancer (AECC) held its second World Day dedicated to promoting the importance of research and calling for the continued backing of these endeavors to collectively solve cancer sooner. Presided by Her Majesty Queen Letizia of Spain and Honorary President of the AECC, renowned thought leaders in oncology joined together to mark the occasion.
As part of a special ceremony, and in recognition of cancer science of excellence, the order of the day included the presentation of the latest AECC awards, totaling at 140 and amounting to 12 million EUR this year. Two of these awards, under the category of AECC Laboratory, were received by VHIO Principal Investigators, Violeta Serra and Alena Gros, who head our Experimental Therapeutics and Tumor Immunology and Immunotherapy Groups, respectively.
Violeta's research focuses on hereditary breast cancer caused by germline mutations in the BRCA1/2 genes, which generally affects young women and is frequently aggressive. In order to improve outcomes for these patients, prognostic and predictive biomarkers must be identified towards better managing the disease as well as testing novel targeted therapies. To deliver on this goal, she leads research to assess DNA repair capacity and the immunological makeup of these tumors. Based on results obtained, her group will develop a predictive test to better gauge therapeutic sensitivity and design more effective and precise treatments.
Alena´s group will aim to provide a detailed characterisation of the phenotype and functionality of circulating lymphocytes that express PD-1. In previous studies, she showed that the population of lymphocytes that express PD-1 in peripheral blood is enriched with lymphocytes capable of recognising tumor cells. The objectives of this new project are to provide insights into the mechanisms of action of anti-PD-L1 in cancer patients, design more effective therapies and develop non-invasive procedures to personalise treatment with anti-PD-L1 agents.
Earlier this year, the AECC awarded three other projects led by VHIO within the framework of its Researching cancer, gaining life program. One was received by Alena Gros as part of AECC´s Seed Ideas funding that supports innovative cancer research which, if successful, could lead to consolidated projects. Isabel Puig, Post-Doctoral Fellow of VHIO´s Stem Cells & Cancer Group, headed by Héctor G. Palmer, received support under the category of AECC Investigators, and Elena Senís, Post-Doctoral Fellow of VHIO´s Cellular Plasticity & Cancer Group, directed by María Abad, obtained AECC funding from its Post-Doctoral program.
Alena´s research will seek to identify a personalised repertoire of immunogenic tumour-related peptides. The clinical results obtained with immune modulation therapies in patients with metastatic cancer show the therapeutic potential of the immune system in combating disease. Based on the hypothesis that there are antigens that go undetected with currently available techniques, representing an obstacle in developing and potentiating more precise immunotherapies, she hopes to develop a novel technique to successfully unmask these antigens. This technology could become the new standard for identifying the epitopes that could be used for active immunisation strategies, and also reveal T-cell populations that could be used for the development of immunotherapies based on personalised T-cells.
Isabel is focusing on inhibitors of an epigenetic enzyme as a new strategy in combatting the progression of colon cancer. She aims to discover why, post therapy, almost 50% of colorectal cancer patients relapse with a new, more aggressive tumour that significantly reduces the patient's likelihood of survival. They previously identified a tumour-related sub-population that is refractory to chemotherapy but can resume tumour growth and may be responsible for disease relapse. These cells are characterised by the presence of an epigenetic enzyme, which is largely responsible for cells surviving chemotherapy. The product that results from its activity could also be used as a biomarker to predict progression.
Elena´s research centers on one of the most common and aggressive brain cancers: glioblastoma. With all the progress made over the last few years in relation to cell plasticity, efforts have concentrated on better understanding the relationship between the acquisition of stem cell properties and tumour initiation. She will attempt to characterise the population of cells with stem cell characteristics in the tumour and then develop novel therapies to specifically eliminate these cells.
Last, but by no means least, the event also recognized the tremendous ten years´ support received from the Spanish hygiene product company, Ausonia, in fuelling breast cancer research of excellence. Through its "1 pack=1 minute" campaign, Ausonia has raised more than 1 million EUR to finance research focusing on the effect of vitamin D on cancer, and the benefits of a balanced diet and exercise from an early age in molecular terms.
Joaquín Arribas, Director of Preclinical Research at VHIO, who has been working on projects with Ausonia for several years, also attended the event. Pioneering research into one of the most aggressive types of breast cancer, HER2+, which represents a fifth of all cases and is particularly aggressive, his team develops novel therapies and agents to more effectively control tumour growth as well as harness the immune system for the treatment of breast cancer.
Without the backing and belief in our research, coupled with the generous support received from entities and companies including AECC and Ausonia, VHIO would cease to do what it does best: translate cancer discovery into more precise and powerful anti-cancer therapies and strategies.