ERC Advanced grant for pancreatic cancer research

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Jai Prakash, a researcher at the TechMed Centre of the University of Twente receives an ERC Advanced Grant from the European Research Council. Prakash is one of the 255 outstanding research leaders in Europe to be awarded an ERC Advanced grant. He receives 2.5 million euros for research on understanding barriers causing treatment failures for pancreatic cancer and developing new treatments against this deadly cancer.

Every year, an increasing amount of people get pancreatic cancer. In 2020, nearly 496,000 people were diagnosed with the disease worldwide and 466000 died. It is a deadly disease; after five years, less than eight per cent of patients are still alive. The tumours are hard to diagnose and when found are then extremely difficult to effectively treat. Even one of the most advanced cancer therapeutics, cancer immunotherapy, has completely failed against this cancer.

One of the reasons pancreatic cancer is notoriously hard to treat is due to the presence of barriers formed by a dense layer on the outside of the tumour, known as the extracellular matrix. The matrix acts as a physical barrier that blocks any incoming treatments but also tumour-killing immune cells, making it nearly impossible for them to reach the cancerous cells inside the tumour. While this matrix is present in most solid tumours, the matrix is much thicker in pancreatic tumours.

Re-engineering the matrix

Prakash’s research focuses on a deep understanding of the complex matrix using different molecular techniques. Once understood he will design advanced technologies to re-engineer the perturbed matrix. The goal is to carefully modulate the matrix that is responsible for blocking immunotherapy and immune cells. Prakash emphasises the importance of controlling the breakdown process to minimise the risk of cancer cells spreading: ’We want to do this in a controlled manner since the matrix not only keeps therapies and immune cells out but also holds tumour cells inside. If too much of the matrix is removed too quickly, the tumour cells can spread throughout the body.’

Advancing immunotherapy

The idea is to work smarter instead of harder. Prakash will develop a treatment that re-engineers the tumour matrix. ’Instead of destroying the walls from the outside, we want to activate natural defence mechanisms in the body to let the matrix break itself down and increase the amount of small immune molecules that enter the tumour’, explains Prakash. This will enhance immunotherapy efficacy to achieve more successful treatments.

Jai Prakash  is a pharmaceutical and entrepreneurial scientist in  the Department of Advanced Organ Bioengineering and Therapeutics  (AOT;  Faculty of S&T ,  TechMed Centre ). Besides this ERC Advanced grant, he recently received funding for the early detection of pancreatic tumours. Through these projects, he is dedicated to increasing the survival rate of pancreatic cancer patients.

About ERC Advanced Grants

The ERC, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. It funds creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based across Europe. The Advanced Grant is the largest of their four core grant schemes. The Advanced Grants help grantees bridge the gap between their pioneering research and its early commercialisation phases. This year, a total of 255 outstanding research leaders in Europe were awarded ERC Advanced Grants. The new grants, worth in total nearly ¤652 million, are part of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme.

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