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Laura Heitman uses her expertise to fight cancer

Seven talented female scientists join the fight against cancer of the Oncode Insitute. Laura Heitman of the Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research is one of the new Junior Investigators. ‘I hope to discover new druggable targets’.


Heitman was eager to join Oncode: 'It is a very special Dutch initiative in which all major research centres work for one goal: defeating cancer. I would like to contribute to that.’ This time the call for young research talent focused specifically on women, after a media fuss about the institute's lack of diversity. This was an extra reason for Heitman to respond.

Seven new talents

Heitman and the other six researchers were selected from a total of 56 proposals submitted. ‘We want to find new ways to diagnose and treat cancer, based on groundbreaking research in the lab,' says Geert Kops, Scientific Director of the Oncode Institute. With the Female Junior Investigator programme, the institute aims to support young female research talent at an early stage of their careers. ‘In addition to embedding them in the thriving Oncode community, we will also support them with a tailored mentoring programme,' says Monique den Boer, chairman of the selection committee. The seven selected talents will start 1 January 2019. With this expansion, Oncode also welcomes Leiden University as a new partner institute.

Medicne and target

Heitman investigates the interaction between drugs and their target in the body. ‘I saw that my expertise in the field of drug development was lacking in research into new cancer medicines at Oncode,' Heitman says. ‘In my opinion, drug research starts with the interaction between the drug its target in the body. Only if you understand and optimise this interaction, you can design effective drugs’.

She wants to mainly focus on so-called G-protein-linked receptors. Receptors are proteins in or on a cell to which a specific molecule can bind. The receptors Heitman wants to study are still underexposed when it comes to cancer. ‘And that despite the fact that these receptors are good proven drug targets. Thirty to forty percent of the medicines for other diseases that you can buy the pharmacy, make use of these receptors.’

Laura Heitman at the LACDR

New druggable targets

Although it’s clear that G-protein-linked receptors play a role in cancer, little is known about the mechanisms in which they are involved and about the best way to target them. Heitman will look at a process called intrinsic tumour signalling and at the receptors’ influence on the microenvironment of tumours. ‘The receptors are not only expressed on tumour cells, but also on other cells around the tumour, such as immune cells', Heitman explains. ‘Here, they give signals that disrupt the natural immune response, so that your body does not eliminate or attack the tumour.' This process allows the tumour cells to multiply and spread instead. Heitman hopes that her research will lead to the recognition of G-protein-linked receptors as useful druggable targets and thus to new opportunities to fight cancer.

Oncode Institute brings together more than 600 fundamental cancer researchers in the Netherlands. Its mission is to stimulate innovations in the field of cancer diagnostics and treatment. The ultimate goal is to help patients survive, improve their quality of life and contribute to affordable healthcare. Oncode Institute efficiently translates fundamental insights in the biology of cancer into new diagnostic methods, medicines and innovative treatments. The three strategic pillars of Oncode are excellent science, intensive collaboration and integrated valorisation. Oncode is financed by KWF Kankerbestrijding, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the Ministry of Public Health, Welfare and Sport and Health ~ Holland with a total of €120 million until 2022.

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