Harvard Medical School researcher Peter Kharchenko and three collaborators have won a six-year multimillion-dollar grant from the European Research Council for their work toward mapping out cellular decision-making during early development in an effort to illuminate new pathways for the treatment of pediatric cancer.
Kharchenko, the Gilbert S. Omenn, MD '65, PhD Associate Professor of Biomedical Informatics in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School, shares the € 9,377,155 (roughly $10.5 million) award with colleagues from three other institutions: Olivier Delattre at the Institut Curie in France, Susanne Schlisio of the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and Igor Adameyko of the Medical University of Vienna.
The 2019 European Research Council Synergy Grants went to 37 research groups to tackle some of the most fundamental challenges facing humanity today, ranging from cancer to climate change.
Kharchenko and his collaborators will aim to map out the decision-making steps that occur at the molecular level as cells differentiate during development. The overarching goal of the work is to identify ways that could force cells en route to becoming cancers to pause and reverse their course or to self-destroy. If successful, such an approach could reveal key cellular interactions and intercellular signals involved in cancer development and lay the foundation for preventive therapies that avert the development of cancer or for new ways to make nascent tumors exquisitely vulnerable to existing therapies.
Kharchenko, together with Adameyko, Schlisio and Delattre, will use innovative molecular and statistical techniques and developmental and computational biology to find a way to act on the nature of the carcinogenic cells themselves as a way to halt cancer cells from progressing to overt disease. Specifically, the team will focus on detecting and interpreting the signals that tumor cells exchange with each other and their environment and how these signals influence cells' decision to differentiate in one direction instead of another. Decoding these signals could offer a way to nudge cells to take a different path, or to choose a different cellular destiny. In doing so, the approach could prevent cells from becoming cancerous or stop the progression and growth of those that already are.
The ERC supports curiosity-driven research, allowing scientists to identify new opportunities in any field of research. Since 2007, more than 9,000 projects have been selected to receive ERC funding throughout the European Union Member States and associated countries.