INM researcher constructs artificial cells to decode camouflage strategies of cancer cells
The immune system not only protects our body from pathogens such as bacteria and viruses but also defends it against the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells. Unfortunately, some cancer cells can outsmart the immune system, altering themselves in a way that prevents detection as a threat. In a six-year research project, Oskar Staufer, a junior researcher group leader at the INM – Leibniz Institute for New Materials in Saarbrücken, aims to decipher the camouflage strategies of cancer cells using newly developed materials. The German Research Foundation (DFG) has granted him €2.4 million from the Emmy Noether programme to realize his project.
What is the focus of the research that Oskar Staufer will dedicate himself to at INM thanks to the funding from the Emmy Noether programme? The 33-year-old biologist explains: ‘In addition to the well-explored biochemical processes that cancer cells use to outsmart the immune system, physical changes also play a role, such as the cell’s adhesiveness or the stiffness of the surrounding tissue. The chemical processes and changes in physical properties interact in a complex manner. So far, there is no method to simultaneously but independently investigate both stimuli. This would be crucial to comprehensively understand the adaptive strategies of cancer cells.”
Synthetically produced ‘fake cells’ aid in the analysis
This is the starting point of Staufer’s innovative research: He and his team of biologists and materials researchers aim to produce synthetic ‘fake immune cells’ that will be introduced into so-called 3D tumoroids. These are tumor-like cell structures also cultured in the laboratory created in his group. This results in a hybrid tissue with defined biochemical and biophysical properties. These synthetic cell systems are intended to establish the technological foundation for decoupling biochemical from mechanical processes in the microenvironment of tumor cells. Subsequently, their functional interplay can be examined through light microscopy and molecular analyses.
The young scientist receives support for his research from the Pharmaceutical Research Alliance Saarland, which includes, in addition to the INM, the Helmholtz Institute for Pharmaceutical Research Saarland (HIPS) and the Saarland University (UdS). HIPS contributes its expertise in research with therapeutically relevant components, while the Centre for Biophysics at UdS supports the investigation of the biophysical properties of cancer cells with its infrastructure.
Professor Aránzazu del Campo, Scientific Managing Director and CEO of the INM, sees Staufer’s research as an enrichment for the materials research institute. ‘Dr. Staufer’s research at the interface between immunology and materials science not only fits exceptionally well into the multidisciplinary research portfolio of the INM. His research in the field of cancer therapy is also in line with one of our core missions, namely, finding solutions to societal problems.”
Your Expert at INM:
Dr. Oskar Staufer
Head Research Group Immuno Materials
Das Emmy-Noether-Programm der DFG zielt darauf ab, hochqualifizierten Forschenden die Möglichkeit zu geben, durch die eigenverantwortliche Leitung einer Nachwuchsgruppe verbunden mit qualifikationsspezifischen Lehraufgaben die Voraussetzungen für eine Berufung als Hochschullehrerin bzw. Hochschullehrer zu erlangen. Um für das Programm ausgewählt zu werden, müssen die Bewerberinnen und Bewerber ein anspruchsvolles Bewerbungsverfahren durchlaufen.
Das Projekt, für das Oskar Staufer Förderung erhält, heißt: „Analyse biophysikalischer Adaptionsmechanismen in der Tumor-Immun-Mikroumgebung mittels synthetischer Zellsysteme“.