The European Research Council recognizes the Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute awarding a prestigious Consolidator Grant to Pablo Menéndez
Pablo Menéndez has been awarded a European Research Council Consolidator Grant for his project Genomic, Cellular and Developmental Reconstruction of Infant MLL-AF4+ Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia.
Very infrequent, unknown in the scientific world, incurable and with prenatal origin. This is the way we could describe acute lymphoblastic leukaemia MLL-AF4+. It is precisely on this very specific type of leukaemia that Dr Pablo Menéndez, director of the UB-Clinic campus at the Josep Carreras Research Institute, has been working on for many years. Recently, his project has received an unprecedented boost: more that two million euros of European funds for research.
What does receiving a grant from the European Research Council (ERC) mean for the Josep Carreras Research Institute and for the fight against leukaemia?
The European Research Council (ERC) is the most important scientific funding organization. The grants they award are internationally renown because of the prestige they give to the chosen organization and to the award-winning researcher. Also, the resources for the projects that are funded also receive additional funds for the institution’s operational expenses.
These grants are addressed to young researchers with a proven scientific career, an excellent publication history and who have gone through a very meticulous evaluation. Every year 2,500 projects take part in these evaluations and very few get the prize. In this occasion, the seventh since the start of this competitive funding tender as part of the European programme Horizon 2020, the European Research Council has selected 328 scientific projects from a vast number of fields, which have been funded with 485 million euros.
Scientists from Campus Clínic-UB team who accomplish the project. From left to right: Damià Romero, Julio Castaño, Pablo Menéndez, Clara Bueno, Lorena Ariza, Alessandra Giorgetti, Cristina Prieto, Alejandra Sanjuan and Álvaro Muñoz.
Why is this one such a unique project?
Childhood cancer is very different from cancer in adults. The most recent research indicates that in some cases neoplasms can have prenatal origin and, therefore, appear during pregnancy. Pro-B lymphoblastic leukaemia in lactating infants is incurable today. Dr Menendez’s project intends to improve knowledge on this very bad prognosis paediatric cancer that, because it is not very frequent and affects very few children a year in the world, is not a critical line of investigation for regular funding sources.
Childhood leukaemia with MLL gene rearrangement (a result of genomic translocation 4;11) is characterised by high level resistance to current drugs and 70% of the patients show infiltration into the central nervous system. Said infiltration is probably the highest cause of death in these babies and underlies the lack of response to current therapy.
The main goal of this project at the Josep Carreras Research Institute against Leukaemia is to identify the population phenotype responsible for the invasion of leukemic cells in the central nervous system so as to determine the antigenic profile to which new therapeutic strategies should be addressed. Reaching this goal will no doubt allow the quality of life of these children who suffer from this very aggressive type of leukaemia with an 80% mortality rate after 4-5 years to improve.
The study of this type of leukaemia is especially complicated due to the patients’ young age and the few samples of cells with which to work with. Unlike many other types of cancer there isn’t an animal cellular model for this disease that makes experimenting our new therapeutic strategies possible. Also, there is a surprising genetic stability among these patients, which means there is another unknown factor playing a decisive role.
Today, Dr Menedez’s team is concentrating on creating a cellular model focused on studying the way in which this type of leukaemia develops in detail. At the same time, they are also creating a collection of cells from patients that will provide a lot more information, for the previous studies have been done based on a very small amount of cells.
Even though Dr Menéndez has been working on the project from the UB-Clinic campus at the Josep Carreras Research Institute against Leukaemia for many years now, the European Research Council’s grant will allow the team to intensify the progression of the study of this disease and significantly increase the speed at which they obtain results.
What is the Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute ?
After more that 27 years working on improving the quality of life of patients and, most of all, searching for a final cure for leukaemia, in 2010, the Josep Carreras Foundation decided to launch, with the help of the government, a historic and unrivalled project: the first European research centre exclusively focused on leukaemia and other haematological malignancies and one of the only existing ones worldwide. So, the Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute (ICJ) was born.
The ICJ CERCA centre, which belongs to the Generalitat de Catalunya (the Catalan Government), was built to boost biomedical research and development of personalised medicine for haematological malignancies and especially, leukaemia. It is an unprecedented centre that, through the work and thoroughness of researchers all over the world, uses the most advanced cutting edge technology to try to win the game against leukaemia and other haematological malignancies.
Each year, about 5,000 people are diagnosed with leukaemia in Spain. On the other hand, other haematological malignancies such as lymphomas or multiple myeloma affect 7,000 and 2,000 new patients each year in our country. As for children, leukaemia is the most frequent childhood cancer, making up for 30% of paediatric cancers.