Next-generation CAR T cells for pediatric rhabomyosarcoma

Group Bernasconi, Rössler  We aim to improve existing therapies for pediatric solid tumors and to devise more effective and less toxic therapies, with a particular focus on rhabdomyosarcoma. 
Pediatric sarcomas account for about 15% of pediatric cancers. The relapse rate is generally high with extremely poor prognosis. CAR T cells are engineered T cells expressing chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). CAR T cells therapy is one of the most promising approaches against relapsed or otherwise untreatable cancers. 
Since 2018, our laboratory focuses on this personalized immunotherapy, in order to enhance the normal capacity of the patient's immune system to recognize and attack the tumor. We have investigated rhabdomyosarcoma surfaceome by proteomics and we have identified several targets for CAR T cells. We are now conducting in vitro and in vivo experiments to improve CAR T cells activity against rhabdomyosarcoma.

Electrospray-mediated localized tumor treatment

Group Geiser   A novel device based on the principle of electrospray, has been invented for localized chemotherapy, by direct and confined drug delivery only at the tumor site. This could be a promising option for preoperative down staging or palliative therapy. This is a collaborative project between Department of Pulmonary Medicine, Inselspital, the University of Bern and FHNW Muttenz. Localized and targeted application of intra tumor delivery of chemotherapeutics lead to significant reduction of tumor as a proof of concept study performed in preclinical settings. 

A personalized multi-omics discovery and validation platform for recurrent head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (POLARES)

Group Giger   Head and Neck Anticancer Center
                                  POLARES Research Group
Diagnostic and therapeutic developments in recent years have improved the prognosis for patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Despite these developments, a significant proportion of patients relapse after an initial response to standard treatment. Salvage treatment options are limited, and personalized treatment approaches that consider the genomic/epigenetic landscape of the tumor are lacking. The goal of this research is to establish a center of excellence in HNSCC that bridges the gap between genomic analysis and translation of findings into clinical trials. By establishing a multi-omics discovery and validation platform under the umbrella of the University Cancer Center Inselspital (UCI), this consortium (ORL, Head and Neck Surgery; Medical Oncology; Radiation-Oncology) aims to determine how alterations at the genomic and epigenetic level regulate carcinogenesis, treatment response and resistance in HNSCC and thereby identify novel mechanisms to target tumor relapse.

On behalf of the Consortium:
Prof. Dr. Roland Giger (Lead), Otorhinolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery; PD Dr. Olgun Elicin, Radio-Oncology; Dr. Simon Häfliger, Medical Oncology; PD Dr. Michaela Medová, Radio-Oncology, DBMR; Prof. Dr. Carsten Riether, Medical Oncology, DBMR; Dr. Daniel H. Schanne, Radio-Oncology

Determining tumor lipid heterogeneity in lung cancer

Group Konstantinidou   Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide. Tumor-associated mutations of KRAS occur in approximately 30% of non-small cell lung cancer, the most common form of lung cancer. KRAS mutations are associated with aggressive, metastatic, and treatment-resistant cancers in both humans and mouse models. Mutant KRAS drives a complex network of lipid metabolic rearrangements to help cancer cells adapt to hypoxia and ensure their survival.
We plan to determine the changes in lipid metabolism that occur in hypoxic tumors and understand their functional significance, accounting for tumor cell-to-cell lipid heterogeneity while preserving the spatial distribution of cancer cell populations within tumors.

Targeting cellular metabolism to augment cancer therapy

Group Marti   The aim of this project is to investigate how the nucleotide/lactate metabolism and the DNA damage response machinery are associated with the tumor initiating capacity, the chemotherapy response, and the metastatic capacity of lung and mesothelioma cancer stem cells. In addition, we are exploiting treatment induced cellular adaptations as novel targets for cancer therapy.

Oncogenic signaling via receptor tyrosine kinases in crosstalk with DNA damage repair

Group Medova   Tyrosine kinase receptors activate a wide range of different cellular signaling pathways. Physiologically, intact signaling via the MET receptor is indispensable in embryonic development and tissue homeostasis. At the same time, MET dysregulation promotes features clearly associated with tumor growth and progression such as uncontrolled proliferation, angiogenesis, local invasion, and systemic dissemination. Accumulating data suggest that MET signaling may also protect tumor cells from DNA damage, hence relating its aberrant activity to resistance to DNA-damaging agents routinely used in cancer treatment. We have identified a previously unreported phosphorylation site on MET, which can be recognized by DNA damage master kinases and is involved not only in cellular responses towards DNA damage, but also in metastatic processes, cancer cell migration, and anchorage-independent growth. This project aims at dissecting the nature, function, and regulation of this phosphorylation site in oncogenic signaling of the receptor.

Myeloid Malignancies

Group Meyer   Myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPN) are chronic leukemias characterized by constitutive activation of JAK2 tyrosine kinase signaling. Clinical JAK2 inhibitors bring benefits for patients, but have limited disease-modifying activity. Allogeneic hematopoietic cell transplantation is the only curative treatment to date.
The Meyer lab has a specific interest in the oncogenic signaling driving MPN. We have demonstrated that activation of the MAPK pathway with MEK1/2 and ERK1/2 kinases, which is involved in several cancers, limits JAK2 inhibitor therapy and needs to be adressed to enhance efficacy (Stivala, JCI 2019; Brkic, Leukemia 2021). These findings have translated to a clinical study (Adore, NCT04097821).
Our lab is investigating mechanisms of resistance, which mediate loss of response to clinical JAK2 inhibitors, and approaches to overcome resistance. Notably, we are involved in the characterization of novel types of JAK2 inhibitors incl. type II JAK2 inhibitors currently in development towards clinical studies (Meyer, Cancer Cell 2015; Codilupi, CCR 2024).



The interaction between immune cells and leukemia/cancer stem cells

Group Ochsenbein   Our research unit examines the interaction between immune cells and cancer stem cells with a focus on leukemia stem cells. Cancer stem cells are resistant to most of the currently available drugs and are responsible for relapse after successful chemotherapy. We use state of the art techniques to analyse the molecular interactions between immune cells and cancer stem cells in murine models and in clinical samples from cancer patients. The aim is to develop improved immunotherapies that specifically target cancer stem cells for different types of cancer, especially in hemato-oncological diseases such as leukemia and multiple myeloma. These novel durgs are tested in in preclinical models and in clinical phase 1 and 2 studies. 

Design, synthesis, analysis, and optimization of novel small molecule inhibitors against prostate cancer

Group Pandey   Androgens are linked to pathology of prostate cancer. Cytochrome P450 CYP17A1 and Aldo-keto reductase AKR1C3 involved in steroid metabolism are drug targets. The current anti-prostate cancer drug, abiraterone, targeting CYP17A1, is not very effective, and has side effects. We found that Abiraterone inhibits CYP21A2 and cortisol production; and a metabolite of abiraterone is a potent androgen, which ultimately defeats the treatment. With computational and medicinal chemistry groups from Denmark, Poland, Italy and Spain, we produce novel inhibitors of CYP17A1 and AKR1C3.
We design and improve the compounds and test them in the laboratory. After the virtual screening, we apply machine learning and automated workflows to identify pharmacophores for structural modifications and synthesis of novel chemicals. Nanoparticle based delivery is used to enhance the efficacy. Using several cell and recombinant protein models novel inhibitors are being tested which are now working at nano molar levels.

Leukemia stem cells and the bone marrow microenvironment

Group Riether   The bone marrow (BM) microenvironment is a unique cellular architecture which crucially regulates self-renewal and differentiation potential of hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells through cell-cell interaction or the release of soluble mediators. These evolutionary conserved processes that evolved to protect normal hematopoietic stem cells from elimination and to regulate demand-adapted responses during inflammation are frequently hijacked in cancer and leukemia. The goal of our research is to understand the molecular and cellular mechanisms how different components of the BM microenvironment such as immune cells and stromal cells affect disease-initiating and -maintaining leukemia stem cells (LSCs) and protect them from immune-mediated elimination. We take advantage of state-of-the art technologies, well-established chronic and acute myeloid leukemia mouse and patient-derived xenograft models in order strengthen our understanding on LSCs and to translate our findings into human disease.

Towards understanding the role of the minor spliceosome in cancer

Group Rubin   Genes are composed of coding units (exons), interspersed with non-coding regions called introns. The process of protein production involves splicing together exons while removing introns from the mRNA molecule. Evolution has given rise to a cellular apparatus called the spliceosome, responsible for carrying out this splicing process. Alternative splicing enables the generation of diverse protein isoforms from a single gene. Splicing is tightly regulated under normal physiological conditions. Our recent findings indicate that cancer cells use a specialized spliceosome, the so-called minor spliceosome, to increase cancer relevant mRNAs. As such cancer hijacks the minor intron-splicing machinery to enhance the expression of transcripts containing minor introns. Proteins encoded by those genes have been shown to activate critical cell survival pathways such as cell cycle regulation and DNA repair. Exploiting the reliance of cancer cells on minor intron-containing genes presents a novel therapeutic opportunity for targeting cancer. By inhibiting the minor spliceosome, we can selectively induce cell death in cancer cells while sparing healthy neighboring cells.