Cancer researcher Celine Everaert is currently developing an important test that should help to improve treatment for cancer patients. This is possible because of a scholarship, funded by donations and bequests.
The blood test that professor Celine Everaert is developing determines who will benefit from immunotherapy and who won’t. Indeed, the therapy does not work equally on everyone: for three out of ten lung-cancer patients, for example, the most common type of treatment is unsuccessful.
The test can make a big difference in determining the proper treatment. “We want to match each patient with the correct medicine”, explains Celine. “So we don’t lose precious time, and we can improve and target the treatment better. We call this precision medicine.”
The mysteries of immunotherapy
Celine is one of the many young top researchers within the CRIG, short for Cancer Research Institute Ghent. Their mission? To cure cancer, and to do so by unravelling all the mysteries behind the disease. Such as those relating to immunotherapy, a treatment that is highly effective in treating many kinds of cancer.
Immunotherapy helps our immune system to clear up cancer cells. Celine: “Here’s how it works: cancer cells occur due to errors in the DNA. Crucial genes are affected and the cells go crazy. Normally, our immune system destroys ‘bad’ cells, but by disguising themselves as normal cells, the cancer cells remain undisturbed and able to grow. Immunotherapy stimulates our immune system to successfully recognise those cancer cells and to attack them. However, it does not work for everyone.”
This has something to do with the composition of our immune cells and their characteristics. Celine: “But we don’t yet know the requirements and characteristics they need for the treatment to be successful. That’s what I intend to find out.”
She is doing that with the help of epigenetics, the field that focuses on the extra information which is found – literally – on top of our DNA. In fact, our DNA contains not only a code for thousands of genes, but also gene switches which determine whether or not genes are active. Celine: “I’m interested in these: are there different patterns in the gene switches in immune cells of patients who respond to immunotherapy, or not? I’m using this information to develop a blood test.”
What is CRIG?
The CRIG, short for ‘Cancer Research Institute Ghent’, gathers over 500 researchers from Ghent University, Ghent University Hospital and the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB-UGent). CRIG stimulates the collaboration between diverse disciplines, in an effort to accelerate the research and develop newer and better treatments.
Young researchers often miss out
Reaching that point requires a lot of resources. “Cancer research is expensive, very expensive, and depends on grants”, says CRIG chairman, professor Olivier De Wever. “The money that comes into the CRIG, for example, through donations and bequests, is spent on this essential research.”
Young, high-potential researchers more often lose out on traditional funding. “This is because they’ve not yet proven their abilities or because their research project is innovative”, confirms Celine. Olivier: “For this reason, we organise a special CRIG scholarship to provide extra support to these young researchers.”
CRIG scholarship as a lever
“You can see a CRIG scholarship as a lever for future scholarships”, he adds. “Many researchers who receive a CRIG scholarship, go on to receive an important scholarship for scientific research later on. To be considered for such scholarships you must already be able to present your promising data.
Support is essential, Celine is aware of that too. “To get financial resources, you need to be able to demonstrate that your research project is feasible. Pre-research is necessary. A CRIG scholarship allows you to conduct such pre-research already.”
This meant that Celine was able to work further on the blood test in 2021. Celine: “The technique I wanted to use is costly and the impact was still unknown: we’d never used it before.”
Indispensable experience for young talent
After the scholarship, things moved fast for Celine: she has since received all kinds of other scholarships, and a few months ago she was appointed as professor. She has also explained her research in comprehensible language in a video on YouTube.
“We present the results of research with videos, so that people can see what is done with the money they donate to the CRIG”, explains Olivier. “We also keep them informed in newsletters, our website and social media, and we organise lab visits too.”
“With a CRIG scholarship, young researchers also immediately embark on a knowledge journey”, continues Olivier. “They start by presenting their results in writing, and defend themselves in front of other researchers. That leads to very interesting and rich discussions. These are really educational, even for those who do not end up receiving a scholarship.”
Would you like to know more about Celine's research project?
She explains it very clearly in this video.
Celine Everaert is both a postdoctoral researcher and professor in the department of Biomolecular Medicine, and studies the genetics of immune cells, among other things. She is an associate of CRIG and VIB-UGent. She has worked as a guest researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
Olivier De Wever was chairman of the CRIG for the last three years. As a professor, he conducts research at the LECR (Laboratory for Experimental Cancer Researcher), part of the CRIG. His academic career focuses on understanding how the tumour environment influences the growth of cancer.
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