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Hans Merks appointed professor of sarcomas

Hans Merks, research group leader at the Prinses Máxima Center, is appointed professor of pediatric soft tissue and bone sarcomas at UMC Utrecht today. As part of the division of imaging and oncology, Prof. Dr. Merks focuses on the continuing development of a center of expertise for treatment and research on sarcomas in children. He also wants to further strengthen the already existing European collaborations by bringing them together. 'This chair gives me the opportunity out of the Utrecht Science Park to strengthen European cooperation with the aim of accelerating clinical and translational research in the field of sarcomas.'

Of the 600 children diagnosed with cancer each year, about 75 (12%) have a sarcoma. In many cases, this type of cancer is easily curable, but when it has metastasized or has a high-risk profile, the outlook is not good. Prof. Merks' research therefore focuses on new and better treatment protocols with the goal of curing more children and improving their quality of life.

European trials aligned

From his role as professor, Hans Merks focuses on training the next generation of scientists. He also focuses on the faster development of new treatment methods for sarcomas, collaboration with researchers from the Máxima and UMC Utrecht is a common thread in this. He says: ‘International clinical trials are needed to put promising new treatment methods into practice. Besides participation from the Máxima in new international trials, it is my goal to align Europe and jointly participate in pan-European trials with a modern research design. In this way we will obtain more and better research data in a more efficient way which will give us the opportunity to accelerate.’

'Imaging biomarkers'

Over half of the children with sarcoma have a tumor in the soft tissues. These are mainly rabdomyosarcomas, or muscle cell tumors. The remaining children have an osteosarcoma or Ewing sarcoma, the latter both bone tumors. Sarcomas occur in a wide variety, a total of more than 60 different forms are known, each often requiring its own specific treatment appropriate to the stage of disease.

An important part of treatment is proper determination of the stage of disease, also known as staging, at diagnosis. In addition, it is crucial to properly monitor the effect of treatment. Together with colleagues at UMC Utrecht and the Prinses Máxima Center, Merks is therefore focusing on optimizing staging and finding so-called ‘imaging biomarkers’. 'I expect that thanks to these measurable features on MRI or FDG-PET scans, we can better determine a child's risk profile and the corresponding treatment plan. This is important for every child, but can also help us at the international trial level to see earlier whether a new treatment works or not. With this, we can accelerate research.

Quality of life and personalized treatment

Merks also focuses with all the specialists involved, on the often significant consequences of surgeries and radiations that have taken place during a period of growth and development. ‘In order to treat a sarcoma, we often have to perform major surgeries or radiations at a young age, which drastically changes the face, an arm or leg, for example. It is very important to properly guide children through this on a functional, aesthetic and psychological level.'

To accelerate development of new and personalized treatments, Merks collaborates with the organoid biobank team at the Máxima. This team develops sarcoma organoids. These mini-tumors enable research in the lab into the origin and growth of sarcomas and the effect of various drugs.

Hans Merks has worked in the pediatric oncology research field for over 20 years, specializing in sarcoma treatment and research. He is also chairman of the European pediatric Soft tissue sarcoma Study Group (EpSSG) and vice-chairman of the EuroEwing Consortium (EEC).

This new chair, which falls under the Cancer spearhead, is housed in the Department of Imaging and Oncology at UMC Utrecht and will start on December 15, 2022. Hans Merks' inauguration will take place at a later date.