Zülch Prize 2016: Forms of cancer in the cerebellum

Award-winning researchers improve the diagnosis of different brain tumours in children and boost treatment success as a result

August 29, 2016
Over 100 different types of tumours can affect the brain and spinal cord, all of which respond differently to treatment. A therapy that may mean a cure for one patient will have no effect in another; thus, it is often unclear which treatment will be of help to which patient. The research being carried out by Stefan Pfister from the German Cancer Research Center and the Heidelberg University Hospital and Michael Taylor from the University of Toronto and The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) has contributed to the achievement of crucial improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of brain tumours. They showed that medulloblastoma, the most common type of malignant brain tumour in children, can be divided into four different types which must be treated individually. This makes it possible to adopt a targeted approach to the treatment of these forms of cancer for the first time. In recognition of their achievements, the two scientists have been awarded the K. J. Zülch Prize by the Gertrud Reemtsma Foundation which comes with a prize fund of 50,000 euros. The award ceremony will take place on 2 September 2016 in Cologne.

Brain tumours are a particularly common form of cancer in children and, even with the help of the very latest treatment methods, it has often been very difficult to date to get the better of the degenerated tumour cells which proliferate in the central nervous systems. One reason for this is that the operative removal of the cancer cells is very complicated, as there is a high risk that healthy brain tissue will be damaged in the process. Another problem that doctors face is that they rarely know precisely which of the 100-plus different types of tumour they are dealing with and, consequently, which treatment would be most effective.

 Different types of medulloblastoma

With the help of modern molecular-biological analyses, Stefan Pfister and Michael Taylor discovered that medulloblastomas, malignant tumours of the cerebellum that are particularly common in children, involve four very different types of cancer. Although the degenerated cells look similar under the microscope, the genetic information they contain differs significantly, comparable to the differences between stomach and bowel cancer.

Various signalling pathways are involved in each of the four types. These result in the uncontrolled division of the cells and their proliferation in adjacent healthy tissue. As a result, the four sub-types respond very differently to different treatment methods. A drug that will kill off one cancer cell will go completely unnoticed by another.

These insights have paved the way for the future development of targeted cancer therapies for medulloblastomas. Targeted cancer therapy is the use of drugs that are specifically aimed at particular types of cancer cells and prevent their further proliferation. The advantage of such therapy is that – unlike radiation and chemotherapy, for example – it has little or no impact on healthy cells and causes fewer side effects in patients as a result.

Stefan Pfister also developed a new diagnostic method that enables the reliable identification of the sub-type to which a medulloblastoma belongs. He analyzed the locations in the DNA where the tumour cell has small attachments known as methyl groups. These chemical modifications provide indicators about the tumour’s history and future. They indicate the cell type from which the tumour cell developed and, accordingly, the type of tumour involved.

Up to now, tumours were mostly analyzed using one method: doctors stained the cells with dyes and analyzed them under an optical microscope. They concluded which type of cancer was involved based on the appearance of the tumour cells. Thanks to the work of the two Zülch prize-winners, we now know that it is impossible to identify crucial differences between tumour cells in this way.

Recipients of the award

Stefan M. Pfister studied medicine at the Universities of Hamburg and Tübingen. Following a research stay at Harvard Medical School in the US he returned to Germany and worked at the University Medical Centre Mannheim, the Heidelberg University Hospital, and the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, among other institutions. In 2012 he was appointed Head of the Division Pediatric Neurooncology at the DKfZ. He has been Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Heidelberg since 2014. 

Michael Taylor studied medicine at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and then specialized in surgery at the University of Toronto. Following a research stay in Memphis, USA, he moved back to Canada and took up a post as neurosurgeon at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

The Zülch Prize

The K. J. Zülch Prize will be awarded at a ceremony on 2 September 2016 at 10 a.m. in the Hansasaal in Cologne City Hall. Following a laudation by Peter Lichter from the German Cancer Research Center and the University of Heidelberg and German Cancer Research Center, Stefan Pfister will report on methods for the more accurate diagnosis of brain tumours. The laudation to Michael Taylor will be given by Manfred Westphal from the University of Hamburg. The honouree will then speak about differences in the clinical behaviour of the different types of paediatric medulloblastomas, for example in relation to the formation of metastases.




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