Breakthrough research on glioma progression wins BIAL Award in Biomedicine

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A team of researchers from Germany, the USA, the UK, and Norway won the third edition of the BIAL Award in Biomedicine, a 300,000 Euro prize promoted by the BIAL Foundation, which seeks to recognize a work in biomedicine of exceptional quality and scientific relevance published in the last ten years.

Led by researchers Varun Venkataramani (first author), Frank Winkler, and Thomas Kuner (senior co-authors) from the University of Heidelberg in Germany, the study "Glutamatergic synaptic input to glioma cells drives brain tumor progression", published in Nature in 2019, represents breakthrough research important for understanding human cancer, specifically glioblastomas, a very aggressive type of brain tumor with an average survival time of just 1.5 years, even with state-of-the-art treatment.

In this work, the authors showed that glioblastomas and other incurable gliomas can integrate themselves into the function of the brain, and that input from healthy brain cells, normally used in functions such as thinking and memory, drives the progression of gliomas. This is possible by formation of synapses between neurons and cancer cells.

For the president of the Jury, Ralph Adolphs, "these findings are a major and surprising advance in the understanding of how brain cancer progresses, by describing a new communication channel between neurons and the tumour and by suggesting specific avenues for treatment".

This paper shows that cancer cells cannot merely proliferate - they have to hijack healthy biological processes and integrate themselves into the normal function of tissues. "Nowhere is this more blatant - and surprising - than in the brain tumours studied in this paper", says Ralph Adolphs.

The award-winning research also provides a new explanation for why epilepsy and tumour progression are often observed together: epilepsy may be a cause, rather than a consequence of the tumour progression.

The winning paper, chosen from 70 nominations, is co-authored by 29 researchers from Heidelberg University, Heidelberg University Hospital, German Cancer Research Center, University Hospital Mannheim, Otto-von-Guericke University (Germany), Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (USA), University of Glasgow (UK), University of Bergen, and Haukeland University Hospital (Norway).

It should be noted that two of the scientists who won the 2021 edition of this Award, Katalin Karikó, and Drew Weissman, were awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries that enabled the development of vaccines based on mRNA to prevent COVID-19.

The next edition will take place in 2025.

Authors of the award-winning work and respective institutions at the time the paper was published:

Heidelberg University, Germany
Varun Venkataramani, Dimitar Ivanov Tanev, Christopher Strahle, Christoph Körber, Markus Kardorff, Heinz Horstmann, Sang Peter Paik, Johannes Knabbe, Frank Herrmannsdörfer, Amit Agarwal, Felix Sahm & Thomas Kuner

Heidelberg University Hospital, Germany
Varun Venkataramani, Dimitar Ivanov Tanev, Alexander Studier-Fischer, Laura Fankhauser, Tobias Kessler, Ruifan Xie, Mirko Messer, Sevin Turcan, Wolfgang Wick, Felix T. Kurz & Frank Winkler

German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), Germany
Varun Venkataramani, Dimitar Ivanov Tanev, Alexander Studier-Fischer, Laura Fankhauser, Tobias Kessler, Miriam Ratliff, Ruifan Xie, Mirko Messer, Wolfgang Wick, Felix Sahm, Azer Aylin Acikgöz, Hai-Kun Liu & Frank Winkler

University Hospital Mannheim, Germany
Miriam Ratliff & Daniel Hänggi

Otto-von-Guericke University, Germany
Christian Mawrin

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, USA
Amit Agarwal & Dwight E. Bergles

Institute of Cancer Sciences, University of Glasgow, UK
Anthony Chalmers

University of Bergen e Haukeland University Hospital, Norway

Hrvoje Miletic

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