Weissman and Massagué win Charles Rodolphe Brupbacher Prize for Cancer Research

January 30, 2015

Researchers Irving L. Weissman and Joan Massagué have won this year's Charles Rodolphe Brupbacher Prize for Cancer Research: Weissman, from Stanford University, for his work on healthy and sick stem cells; Massagué, from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, for his research on metastatic spread. The award, which carries CHF 100,000 each in prize money, is to be presented on January 29 during the international symposium on "Breakthroughs in Cancer Research and Therapy" in Zurich.

This will be the 12th time that the Charles Rodolphe Brupbacher Prize has been awarded. It is regarded as one of the world's highest accolades for cancer researchers. This year, two outstanding scientists, Irving L. Weissman and Joan Massagué, are being recognized for their key achievements in research on cancer stem cells and metastatic spread. The results from both fields of research are crucial for the development of efficient, targeted treatments.

Ground-breaking result: isolation of cancer stem cells

Hematopoietic stem cells are an extremely rare cell population in the bone marrow, which regenerate and can form all mature blood cells via various differentiation steps throughout the patient's whole life. In 1988 the American doctor and stem-cell researcher Weissman achieved a ground-breaking research result: He managed to isolate these hematopoietic stem cells in mice and, four years later, in humans, too.

Later, Weissman succeeded in isolating cancer stem cells, the germinal centers of the cancer disease, in different strains of leukemia. Cancer stem cells are believed to be resistant to chemotherapy. Together with his colleagues at the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, Weissman decoded a mechanism that protects both cancer cells and cancer stem cells against destructive immune cells. "His discoveries on aging processes in stem-cell systems and ultimately his contribution towards understanding cancer stem cells and the way in which the immune system can control these cells are pioneering achievements with far-reaching clinical implications," says Markus Manz, the director of the Department of Hematology at the University Hospital Zurich, at the awards ceremony.

Cancer stem cells and metastatic spread closely linked

Usually, the development of metastases in remote organs reduces the probability of survival drastically in cancer patients. The Spanish pharmacologist and cancer researcher Joan Massagué succeeded in demonstrating that genes are involved in the metastatic process which may not have been particularly significant in the development of the primary tumor. Based on elaborate genetic and epigenetic analyses in his lab, he found evidence of a series of genes that cause metastases in the lung and, at the same time, encourage the growth of primary breast cancer. The identification of the genes responsible for the metastatic process enables strategies to be developed that can reduce or suppress the capacity of the cancer cells circulating in the body to form metastases in remote organs.

In recent decades, there has been mounting evidence that cancer stem cells and the mechanisms of metastasis formation are closely linked. Massagué and his colleagues from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York were able to show that the properties and signaling channels of metastatic cancer cells that trigger the growth of metastases in remote organs intersect with those of normal stem cells.
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University of Zurich

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