Fighting leukemia starting from its evolution. A new ERC-funded research project at the IOR

Diagram of the clonal evolution
Diagram of the clonal evolution

Institutional Communication Service

1 February 2018

Chronic lymphatic leukemia (LCL), the most common form of leukemia in adults, is a tumour whose growth and survival depends on the interactions that the leukemic cell has with the surrounding microenvironment, from which it draws signals to proliferate and resist chemotherapy. Dr. Davide Rossi from the Institute of Oncology Research (IOR) at Università della Svizzera italiana (USI), and Hematologist Head of the clinical program on lymphatic leukemia at the Istituto oncologico della Svizzera italiana (IOSI), has been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant worth 1,94M euros, the prestigious competitive funding provided by the European Research Council, to support his research on the functioning of these important molecular dynamics. This is the third ERC Grant awarded so far to an IOR researcher.

A thorough understanding of this context could have direct impacts on patient care, allowing rational design of therapeutic combinations to block clonal tumour evolution, as well as the development of resistance to therapy.

Chronic lymphatic leukemia is an aggregate of heterogeneous cellular populations that, following Darwinian laws of species selection, compete with each other for survival. Only cellular populations that adapt to the hostile environment imposed by the treatment of leukemia can survive and cause a relapse of the disease. The progressive mutations of the tumor, a phenomenon called clonal evolution, is a well-known mechanism through which the leukemic cell adapts to the hostile environment imposed by therapy and acquires resistance. The interconnection between the oncogenic signals promoted by the microenvironment and clonal evolution has been postulated at the theoretical level, but never demonstrated due to the lack of suitable models.

The working hypothesis of Dr. Rossi’s project is that the clonal evolution driven by mutations and by selection is promoted by the microenvironment-induced signals, including those spread by BCR, one of the most important surface molecules used by lymphatic leukemia cells to obtain oncogenic signals.

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Dr. Davide Rossi is also among the sixteeen awardees of the 2018 Pfizer Research Prize for young scientific researchers in Switzerland. Dr. Rossi was awarded in the field of oncology for his project “Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma genotyping of the liquid biopsy”, during a ceremony held in Zurich on February 1, 2018.

For information on the Pfizer Research Prize: