05.04.2016: Veronika Sexl of the Institute for Pharmacology and Toxicology at Vetmeduni Vienna has been awarded a coveted ERC Advanced Grant from the European Research Council. The grant will provide funding of about € 2.5 million over the next five years for research into new possibilities of cancer therapy using the enzyme CDK6.
The mission of the European Research Council (ERC) is to provide funding to outstanding researchers in support of frontier research in Europe. Veronika Sexl, head of Vetmeduni Vienna’s Institute for Pharmacology and Toxicology, will be able to use the funding awarded in late March 2016 to investigate the CDK6 protein, a prominent candidate in cancer research. Vetmeduni Vienna currently receives funding from three ERC grants.
Targeted inhibition of carcinogenic enzyme
CDK6 is a kinase, a special enzyme that initiates and propagates cellular processes such as cell cycle progression and thus cell growth. Transformed cells often overproduce kinases, leading to hyperactivity that promotes tumor development. These enzymes have therefore come to be at the focus of tumor research. CDK6, an important kinase in hematopoietic tumor cells, is known to be a possible aggressor and tumor promoter. Proof that a specific enzyme is promoting a patient’s cancer makes it possible to choose a therapy specific to that enzyme. Drugs that work to prevent kinase hyperactivity are called inhibitors. The inhibition of CDK6 activity was celebrated as breakthrough of the year in 2013 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Inhibitors guarantee only partial success
Sexl and her team recently showed that these inhibitors do not fully stop the tumor-promoting aspect of CDK6 and only have a partial impact on the effects of CDK6. “The inhibitors restrict the influence of the kinase activity of CDK6 on the cell cycle. But we have discovered that CDK6 is also involved in processes outside of the cell cycle control system,” Sexl explains. “CDK6 regulates many tumor-promoting genes and is a driver of hematopoiesis in the tumor tissue and of leukemic stem cell activation. The enzyme performs these functions largely without kinase activity, as a result of which the inhibitors currently in use are unable to prevent this second function.” Despite inhibitor therapy, therefore, the disease could still spread.
The ERC Advanced Grant will allow Sexl to focus on finding new possibilities to inhibit this second, kinase-independent function of CDK6. This could result in an entirely new paradigm for the development of cancer drugs. CDK6, a “global player” in tumor development, could be taken out of the game in a much more targeted fashion.
About Veronika Sexl
Veronika Sexl studied medicine in Vienna. After her studies, she joined the Institute of Pharmacology as research assistant. In 1996 she was awarded an Erwin Schrödinger Fellowship from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) for a postdoctoral position with the Department of Tumor Cell Biology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. After the fellowship was over, Sexl stayed in Memphis for two more years at the Department of Biochemistry before returning to the Institute for Pharmacology and Toxicology – then still a part of the University of Vienna – where she was made University Professor and Specialist for Pharmacology and Toxicology. In 2007 she was appointed Full Professor for Signal Transduction and Molecular Targeting Therapy. In 2010 she moved to the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna as Professor for Pharmacology and Toxicology and head of the institute of the same name.
Sexl is the Austrian delegate to the councils of the renowned institutions European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). She is a member of the European Academy of Sciences and has received a number of awards, including the Alois Sonnleitner Prize of the Austrian Academy of Science as well as the Novartis Prize for Medicine. In 2015 she was elected to the board of the European Hematology Association (EHA).
Sexl has participated in a number of joint research programs, such as the Austrian Science Fund’s JAK-STAT initiative, and has brought in a total of € 4.6 million in research funds so far. With the ERC Advanced Grant, she has been awarded further funding of € 2.5 million over five years.