by Simone West and Sabrina Leretz
COPENHAGEN, DENMARK – A grant of DKK 100 million has been awarded at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Stem Cell Biology, Danstem at the University of Copenhagen, paving the way for a long-lasting treatment of hematologic diseases.
Prof. Kristian Helin, at the Biotech Research and Innovation Centre (BRIC), together with Principal Investigator (PI), Prof. Bo Porse, will head the program. On the clinical side, the program PI is Prof. Kirsten Grønbæk.
Copenhagen Biocenter is a fortress. It is a high-rise building, intimidating to the eyes. There is something foreboding about a clinical environment. It is almost as if you should not be allowed to touch anything. The security system before each laboratory entrance ascertains the important work they are performing, which cannot be tainted.
Grønbæk is a Professor, MD at the Department of Hematology at the Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen. Her work days consist of both seeing patients and researching at the Biocenter. Despite her prominence at Denmark’s State Hospital, she greets me with warmth and the same treatment as a respected work colleague. She has an air of elegance and I am aware while interviewing her that she is an expert in her field with years of experience. I am not intimidated, yet I feel an immense amount of respect for her, a woman who devotes her time to help fix blood diseases that are difficult to treat.
Grønbæk’s research is focused on identifying, monitoring and targeting epigenetic changes in blood cancers. While genetics is the backbone and makes us who we are, what is expressed in the cells is called ‘epigenetics’. In blood cells, codes for regulation are disrupted by mutations or deletions, so they are unable to function correctly and different proteins are made, which change the whole phenotype (the observable physical properties of an organism).
In a recent development, the Grønbæk Group has officially become affiliated with BRIC. BRIC is part of the University of Copenhagen, established in 2003 by the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.
The grant has been awarded in order to establish a new research program, ‘Program for Translational Hematology’ which focuses on blood cancers that arise in stem cells and in the bone marrow, where the blood cells are produced.
The main purpose is “to identify the patients cancer stem cells (CSCs) and to develop methods to directly target these cells that we believe are the source of relapses,” says Grønbæk.
The two diseases being studied are Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) and Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), with both diseases known to arise in the early stem cells.
“If we want to cure these diseases,” Grønbæk says, “[we have to] actually hit the right stem cells, so the whole idea of this project is to develop or identify drugs which can kill the stem cells which are the source of these diseases.”
“We want to take the patients stem cells and expose them to 400 screening drugs to see which other drugs are actually being active and to take care of this, we are establishing a group with a bioinformatics team.”
The team will be targeting stem cells from patients with AML and MDS, as Grønbæk explains, “we haven’t seen the same kind of progress in outcomes of patient treatments as we have seen for the lymphoid malignancies with the myeloid cancers, and we think it is because we do not target the cancer stem cells.”
Due to recurrence in the disease, stem cell research is particularly important.
The collaboration will engage nurses and PhD students in the clinics, as well as other patient doctors. Grønbæk and her fellow Principal Investigator (PI) will be employed both at BRIC and the University.
In addition, Grønbæk is collaborating on another study, via Associate Professor Sine Reker Hadrup, an immunologist at the Danish Technical University in Lyngby. Together with Dr Ashwin Unnikrishnan from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, they will be studying how hypomethylating agents (azacitidine or ‘aza’) can enhance the visibility of tumor cells to the immune system.
A method has been developed that will allow the researchers to look at the individual patients’ immune cells before and after treatment with aza so they can determine exactly what mark on the tumor cells the T-cells are recognising.
“This is potentially very important and may lead to the development of even more specific immune therapies.”
Via collaboration with the Van Andel Research Institute, Grønbæk is also working with US Organisation, ‘Stand-Up to Cancer, Epigenetics Dream Team.’ Here, she has had the opportunity to collaborate with Susan Clarke from the Garvan Institute in Sydney, who is one of the pioneers of epigenetics.
Together, they will collaborate on epigenetic regulation and pave the way for further successful treatments.