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KWF Young Investigator Award: developing immunotherapies for incurable childhood brain tumors

Florijn Dekkers, postdoctoral scientist in the Rios group, has received a KWF Young Investigator Award in the latest round of KWF funding, announced today. The grant will allow her to study immunotherapies for diffuse midline glioma, a childhood brain tumor for which there is currently no cure.

Diffuse midline glioma is a high grade form of brain cancer in children with a very poor prognosis. Current treatment options – including surgery, radiotherapy and chemo – only help extend children’s lives for a few months. New treatment options are desperately needed.

Getting immunotherapy to work

Immunotherapy holds great promise for childhood cancers: it could help enlist the body’s own immune system in attacking and killing cancer cells. So-called T cell immunotherapies, including CAR-T cells, are working well in some children with leukemia. These therapies also hold promise for diffuse midline gliomas, but it is currently unknown which type of T cell therapy would be suited best for children with diffuse midline glioma.

Dr. Florijn Dekkers, postdoctoral researcher in the Rios group (DREAM3DLAB), hopes to change that. She plans to study both CAR-T cells as well as other, newer forms of T cell therapy that each have a unique mechanisms to recognize cancer cells. ‘In order to get these to work optimally for children with diffuse midline glioma, understanding how the T cells communicate with tumor cells is critical,’ she explains. That’s why she plans to use innovative ways of looking at these interactions in 3D.

Closer look

Florijn will study the different immunotherapies in 3D mini-tumors grown from tissue samples of children treated at the Máxima. She explains: ‘We will visualize the effect of the T-cell immunotherapies on our mini-tumors in 3D, and in real-time. That should offer us a closer look at how they go about their attack, so we can select the most effective form of immunotherapy for diffuse midline gliomas.’ Florijn will also study the effect of the treatments in mice to assess how well each of the immunotherapies can find and kill the tumor cells in a within the brain.

More effective treatments

Through this research, Florijn hopes to uncover brand new T cell immunotherapies for children with these aggressive brain tumors, as well as help improving existing immunotherapies so they’re more effective for diffuse midline gliomas. She says: ‘I feel very happy and honored to receive the KWF Young Investigator Award. I really have good hopes that this project will result in new treatment options for children with diffuse midline glioma. The award will also help to establish myself as a scientific leader in the immuno-oncology field through the development of innovative technology platforms.’