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Benedetta Artegiani: ‘Basic research in organoids is needed to make clinical research possible’

Benedetta Artegiani, Italian of origin, has travelled Europe as a scientist before she came to the Máxima, where she just started a research group. Coming from the Hubrecht Institute, Benedetta has brought in expertise and a thorough knowledge of stem cells and organoids.

Benedetta was born in Rome, one of the oldest cities in the world. Now, as a PI in the Princess Máxima Center, she is in the frontline of pediatric oncological research using highly innovative methods and technology. ‘After I studied in Rome, I went to the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, to do my PhD. I studied the role of protein signaling throughout all stages of neural development and maintenance of the brain. After that I did a post doc in Dresden for one year and a half, after which I moved to Utrecht.’

Studying cell behavior
Benedetta joined Hans Clevers’ team at the Hubrecht Institute. ‘I studied the behavior of adult neuro stem cells and how they communicate within the adult brain and generate neurons. I also developed genetic tools to introduce mutations in liver organoids, in order to do research on what happens in cancer processes. We used fluorescence to visualize activities in cell division. I came to speak with Hans on the possibilities of applying our tools in pediatric cancer research. That brought me to the Máxima.’

Mimic real life
Benedetta’s group will use stem cell techniques and organoids to study characteristics of brain and liver tumors in children. ‘In organoids you can mimic real life processes in the cells. By visualizing protein structures we will try to understand how the cell behaves. We will do so in pediatric liver cancer cells. As for brain tumors we need to take other steps first. We will have to identify what is the best organoid system. To be more precise: we will develop novel organoid tools to study gene mutation in brain cells. The idea is to closely look at the differences between normal development and how mutations eventually can lead to cancer.’

Understanding mutations
It’s the sort of basic research that is needed to advance towards the mission of the Máxima, Benedetta says. ‘In the long run our findings can have an important impact in terms of providing cures. But there’s still a long way to go before we can actually apply this knowledge in patient care. Basic research is important because it makes clinical research possible. If we are able to thoroughly understand how mutations generate tumors, the next step will be to figure out how to block this.’

Make things good
At the moment Benedetta’s group exists of only two persons: she and a technician. ‘We are hiring a PhD student to join the team. He or she will be developing new 3D culture systems to model cancer and study the effect of mutations, as well as organ development. My personal goal is to try to understand how and why cancer happens in young kids. If you know what goes wrong, you can try to make it good.’