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Borderline between cancer and thrombosis

Winning a prestigious award for PhD researchers, even before you have your doctorate: that's what Yascha van den Berg managed to do with his research proposal on alternatively spliced tissue factor, a protein that may be involved in tumour growth. Van den Berg: ‘It all started as a Friday afternoon experiment.'

Yascha van den Berg: ‘It all started as a Friday afternoon experiment.’  

Alternatively spliced tissue factor (asTF) was discovered in 2003, but six years later we still don't know exactly what it does. The protein is a variant of the better-known protein tissue factor that is involved in such activities as blood clotting and the formation of blood vessels in tumours. 'We found that asTF is produced by particular types of cancer, such as breast cancer, cervical cancer and pancreatic cancer,' Van den Berg explains.   

He wrote a research proposal to further study the subject, which won him a prize of 40,000 euro, presented by Sanofi-Aventis and the International Society of Thrombosis and Haemostasis.

Blood vessels

The prize money will enable Van den Berg to put his research proposal into action. There are two parts to his proposal: ‘We are first going to devise a method of measuring how much asTF there is in the blood of a cancer patient. This is important because asTF could be used as a marker, for example, to be able to trace tumours at a particular stage of development,' explains Van den Berg. 'We have also found in our cell research that asTF may be responsible for the growth of the tumour because it promotes the formation of new blood vessels. We want to move beyond cells and get closer to the real life situation, so we are now going to study the mechanism in patients.'   

Very lucky

Van den Berg believes that the prize went to his proposal because of its innovative research. 'The jury was looking for a research proposal focusing on the borderline between cancer and thrombosis. The innovative element of asTF combined with the experienced research group that I am working with was probably the reason why our proposal won.' Normally the prize is only awarded to post-docs: successful PhD researchers. Van den Berg was allowed to compete for the award because, as well as being a PhD researcher, he is also a doctor of medicine: 'Abroad, a doctor who does research is often regarded as a kind of post-doc. All in all, I was very lucky.' 

Friday afternoon experiment

And Van den Berg's good luck goes further than this. The PhD research that he has been working for the past two years originally only related to the standard variant of tissue factor. It was by chance that he discovered the possible role of asTF in cancers that cause the proliferation of blood vessels: 'It started with an experiment which tested whether asTF affects the formation of blood vessels. This proved to be the case, and then the ball started to roll. Winning this prize is a particular bonus because what started as a successful Friday afternoon experiment has now become a serious project within our research group.'   

(7 July 2009)

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