ERC grants, IRB awarded for research on DNA for new cancer therapies

Petr Cejka

Petr Cejka

Prof. Petr Cejka , group leader at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB, affiliated to USI) and Associate Professor at the USI Faculty of Biomedical Sciences, has been awarded a second highly competitive research fund by the European Union: an ERC Advanced Grant. This prestigious funding not only confirms the importance of his studies on DNA repair mechanisms in oncology, it also demonstrates the growing interest of the scientific community in these topics, which could lead to the possible discovery of anti-tumor therapies.

DNA lesions and Homologous Recombination

DNA contains the "instructions" (genetic code) that allow the development and correct functioning of all living organisms. Our DNA suffers tens of thousands of injuries every day, often caused by the normal metabolic processes of cells. Thanks to complex DNA repair mechanisms, our cells ensure a faithful reproduction of the genetic code and prevent the creation of mutations. Incorrect DNA repair can lead to various scenarios, including changes in genetic information, alterations in chromosomal number or structure, up to cell death or, in some cases, uncontrolled cell division, thus, development of tumors. The research group headed by Prof. Cejka deals with a particular DNA repair mechanism, called homologous recombination. "In my laboratory - explains Cejka - we have been studying homologous recombination since I returned to Switzerland from the University of California at Davis in 2011. In normal cells, this mechanism serves to repair accidental DNA breaks to protect us from cancer: understanding how it works it can help us design new anticancer therapies".

A new European funding for cutting-edge research

For his innovative research on homologous recombination, in 2016 Petr Cejka (who at the same time joined the IRB), obtained a first important competitive funding from the European Research Council (ERC Consolidator Grant, worth approx. 2M euros). Now, thanks to a new project that will investigate the function of breast cancer genes, Petr Cejka has obtained a further prestigious ERC funding, the so-called ERC Advanced Grant (worth approx. 1.8M euros), to study the function of BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes whose mutations are associated with breast and ovarian cancers. "Although these proteins were identified several decades ago, we still know very little about their precise function, although it is evident that both promote DNA breakdown repair", says Prof. Cejka. The proposed project (title: Understanding the functions of the BRCA protein complexes in DNA break repair and in replication stress) aims to understand the functions of these proteins, in the repair of DNA lesions and in the interaction with other repair factors, in an in vitro reconstituted system.

Europe promotes cutting-edge research, also in Switzerland and at USI

For 2020, the European Research Council (ERC) has awarded Advanced Grants for a total of 507M euros to 209 researchers (out of over 2600 applications) in Europe and associated countries, including Switzerland, which has won 12. These are highly competitive grants addressed to established and recognised researchers in their respective fields, intended to support projects with a highly innovative character (frontier research). The Advanced Grants are awarded in addition to the Starting Grants - intended for promising researchers in the first years after their doctorate and who demonstrate a strong and independent scientific thinking - and the Consolidator Grants - which support established researchers, in order to consolidate their academic leadership. With this new ERC won by Prof. Cejka, the total number of ERCs obtained by USI researchers rises to 23 - see here for the complete list (section ’ERC’).