The Metastasis Research Centre performs joint investigation on metastasis
The Metastasis Research Centre (MetCentre) brings together multidisciplinary basic research groups from the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) and clinical and translational groups from hospitals and technology platforms in Barcelona, with the aim to perform joint investigation on metastasis.
According to the World Health Organization, cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide and accounted for 8.2 million deaths (13% of all deaths) in 2012. The survival rate has been steadily increasing over the last decade, but the main obstacle for patients, clinicians and scientists to overcome has a daunting name: metastasis, responsible for 90% of current cancer mortality. Thus, research on metastasis is critical: any new knowledge will profoundly affect human health, quality of life, and public health policy. “A small amount of progress in this field could benefit millions,” explains Joan Massagué, Chair of IRB Barcelona External Advisory Board, and founder of MetCentre.
Facilitating and channelling resources and efforts into causes, mechanisms and treatments of metastasis
Collaborations with other clinical and translational research centres in the metropolitan area of Barcelona
Raising funds from competitive and philanthropic sources
Although metastasis has been considered a major health problem for centuries, the breakthroughs made with respect to its genetic determination, its molecular mechanisms and specific treatments have been minimal.
However, conceptual and technological advances that have arisen in recent years now offer an unprecedented opportunity to tackle this problem. MetCentre will seize this opportunity in order to focus its research on metastasis.
Scientists at IRB Barcelona are paving the way towards the discovery of the molecular mechanisms underlying metastasis. The research focuses on the study of the overall metastatic process as well as its individual components: tumour angiogenesis, the progenitor cells that derive from bone marrow, cell motility and adhesion, interactions with the microenvironment of the tumour, and stem cells.
The MetCentre initiative has been brought about within IRB, a reference research centre in Barcelona. The convergence of multidisciplinary disciplines at the institute, organised into five research programmes, namely Cell and Development Biology, Structural and Computational Biology, Molecular Medicine, Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology, and Oncology, provide an ideal hotbed from which to launch multidisciplinary projects with a specific aim.
MetCentre welcomes collaborations with other clinical and translational research centres in the metropolitan area of Barcelona.
Research into metastasis calls for access to clinical samples (for example, fluids with malignant components, samples of tumours and tissues with metastasis and circulating tumour cells) for the generation of living cell suspensions, research into genetic translation, and inoculation studies on animals. Protocols have recently been drawn up for these purposes.
Metastasis is a highly relevant issue from both a scientific and medical perspective. By devoting its efforts to metastasis at IRB Barcelona, MetCentre will boost the participation of new talent – from students to university lecturers. MetCentre seeks to attract basic and clinical researchers from local and international settings.
A multidisciplinary project for metastasis research
The Severo Ochoa Distinction of Excellence awarded to IRB Barcelona by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness in October 2011, was based in two evaluation criteria: the scientific quality of the centre and a project for the future, namely the Met Project, whose main scientific goal is cancer metastasis. The Severo Ochoa Award involves the allocation of one million euros per year for four years.
IRB Barcelona was established in 2006 on the principle that major biomedical problems should be addressed through a blend of biology, chemistry, biophysics and bioinformatics, with robust ties to relevant clinical resources. This structural multidisciplinary approach is one of the assets that has allowed IRB Barcelona to develop cutting-edge science. The unique convergence and interaction of diverse researchers has led to a critical mass that has paved the way for IRB Barcelona scientists to focus efforts on cancer, one of the most scientifically stimulating challenges and a major health problem worldwide. In 2007 the External Advisory Board highlighted that cancer and metastasis were natural strengths and a de facto “brand” of the Institute.
The focal point addressed by the Met Project stems from the fact that invasive tumours release cancer cells from the onset. Some of these cells infiltrate distant organs and remain in the patient after diagnosis and removal of the primary tumour. As many patients know too well, disseminated tumour cells may lie dormant in the body for long periods of time, depending on the type of cancer, until explosive, lethal outgrowth of metastasis ensues. It is precisely this latent phase of the metastatic process that will be targeted in the Met Project using an interdisciplinary approach.
The research performed at IRB Barcelona has been shaping the scientific tools that allow the problem of metastasis to be tackled. In order to identify the cell types, tissue niches, gene networks and signalling pathways that support the survival of latent disseminated tumour cells, IRB Barcelona scientists have been working on cutting-edge science on colorectal and breast cancer and on the so-called mediators of metastasis. Modelling obtained through Drosophila studies will be another key piece in the metastasis puzzle. We also know that stress-activated kinases are implicated in the dormancy process and that mRNA translation and genome instability affect the survival and tumour-initiating fitness of disseminated cancer cells. By fostering the synergies already carefully nurtured at the Institute, it will be possible to sketch a promising picture of the mechanisms that underlie metastasis. The following step will be to develop proof-of-concept therapies that target these cells and prevent metastasis with greater effectiveness and less toxicity than the chemotherapy currently available. This will be done only by first transferring candidate drug targets to structural, computational and chemistry labs for structural modelling of preclinical therapeutic agents.
The Met Project would not be feasible without exploiting the solid partnerships with local clinical institutions, such as the Hospital Clínic, Hospital del Mar and Hospital Sant Pau, and scientific institutes, like the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, and internationally, such as the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
A collaborative project on metastasis of breast cancers
Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women in Europe and the United States. Despite a recent decrease in breast cancer incidence rates, it remains the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women. Nearly all of these deaths are due to the metastatic spread of the tumour. Metastasis occurs when tumor cells acquire the ability to escape their original location and invade healthy tissue and organs elsewhere in the body.
This complex cellular process, virtually unique to cancer, raises fundamental questions about the role that certain genes play in determining how and why tumor cells break free and, once mobile, how they decide where to attack. We have isolated tumor progenitor cells from breast cancer patients and used bioluminescence to select metastatic cells in mice.
With the support of the BBVA Foundation, MetLab project is a pioneer initiative in the development of new concepts and techniques that foster our current understanding of the biology of breast cancer metastasis. Indeed, the data obtained within this project is transferable to metastasis projects in other types of cancer, such as colon and brain.
Under the leadership of Dr. Roger Gomis, IRB Barcelona, and Prof. Joan Massagué, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, this is a collaborative project and institutions represented includes other institutions such the Hospital Clínic and IDIBAPS, the Hospital de San Pau, and the Hospital del Mar. Beyond the research collaborations that exist between the investigators and clinicians, this network serves as a forum for internal scientific presentations, discussions of work in progress, and joint efforts to develop new ideas and to attract grant support and new talents to metastasis research.
Scientific directors: Prof. Joan Massagué and Dr. Roger Gomis
In collaboration with
Transferring cancer technology from academia to industry
IRB Barcelona’s missions include not only conducting scientific research of excellence in the field of cancer, but also translating the results of this research into benefits for society. In order to achieve these goals, the Institute, in collaboration with the “la Caixa” Social Programme, launched BioMedTec (formerly known as CancerTec), a platform which aims to fulfill the potential of the results of research in cancer conducted by our researchers. The programme supports IRB Barcelona scientists in their quest to develop diagnostic tools and therapies for cancer and help get these technologies into the market. By creating small, versatile and focussed working groups, we are able to improve processes such as proof of concept and transfer of research results, with the ultimate goal of improving the well-being of our society.
The BioMedTec programme allows us to boost the transfer of results achieved in our laboratories to the market, thereby increasing the quality of life of cancer patients. New diagnostic tools allow physicians to determine how sensitive patients are to a given treatment and to choose a personalized treatment plan which maximizes effectiveness and minimizes secondary effects. The programme also helps researchers discover new compounds for the treatment of cancer and improve those which already exist. All things added up, BioMedTec has great potential to generate new and important social and business opportunities.
Bringing together clinicians and scientists
MetCentre regularly organizes scientific seminars (MetCentre Sessions). These seminars seek to bring together basic and clinical scientists and foster research collaborations between them.
MetCentre Sessions have so far involved participants from the following institutions:
IRB Barcelona (interdisciplinary groups from different programmes)