The future of cancer research 
debated in Barcelona

By October 12, 2021October 18th, 2021IRB Barcelona

This month, the BIST centre IRB Barcelona and the BBVA Foundation organised the Barcelona Biomed Conference on stem cells and cancer with the participation of international experts. The role of cancer stem cells is one of the most relevant lines of research in the world in the fight against the disease. The international conference provided new data on how to overcome chemotherapy resistance and how to prevent metastases.

The 36th Barcelona Biomed Conference (October 4-6) organised by the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) and the BBVA Foundation brought together some of the most relevant researchers on the international panorama in the area of cancer stem cells. The aim of this international conference was to move knowledge forward and to open the debate on research that is under way, as yet unpublished, regarding key concepts such as cellular plasticity, resistance to chemotherapy treatments, and the use of organoids in future cancer therapies.

The conference, coordinated by Dr. Eduard Batlle, a researcher at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies – the ICREA – and head of the Colorectal Cancer Laboratory at IRB Barcelona, will also be attended by Dr. Hans Clevers, a researcher at the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht (The Netherlands) and Dr. Elaine Fuchs from Rockefeller University (USA), all three of whom are considered to be leading figures in the field of stem cells and cancer.

Plasticity, resistance and organoids at the vanguard of oncology research

Among the major topics of the Biomed Conference, those that are related to cellular plasticity and what is known as the heterogeneity of tumours were particularly noteworthy. “Different types of cells live in a tumour which, in addition, are at different stages of development,” says Dr. Batlle, the coordinator of the international meeting. Modifying the cell state can help to revert or control the disease, particularly the metastases. Stem cells play a determining role in this phenomenon.

A second line of research that was given special attention was the knowledge of the basic mechanisms that cause certain cellular populations of a tumour to resist the available cancer drugs. Chemotherapy resistance can lead to future relapses of the disease, the reappearance of the primary tumour and even metastasis in different organs. This process is mediated by cancer stem cells that have an enormous potential to regenerate normal tissue. “We now have technology based on sequencing the RNA of each cell within a tumour, which enables us to investigate the various cellular states and programmes that regulate resistance to therapy and metastases,” explains Dr. Batlle. These new technologies are also helping us understand why residual cancer cells remain, what their behaviour will be like and how they can be eradicated.

A third fundamental aspect addressed at the conference was the use of new organoid models, generated from patients’ cells, for studying and treating diverse forms of cancer. Organoids are formed from adult stem cells and, under laboratory conditions, acquire functions that are very similar to those of any organ or tumour, meaning that their three-dimensional structure can be studied along with their response to therapy and even the interaction of tumour cells with the immune system. Organoids are already being used for the development of new drugs, to predict cancer patients’ response to chemotherapy and to understand, at a molecular level, an increasing number of genetic disorders.

World experts at the frontier of cancer research

Among those attending the Biomed Conference, there were international experts from all over the world to debate on the latest trends in cancer research. These included Dr. Hans Clevers, who is internationally renowned for his work on colon cancer, and a pioneer in the development of organoids. Dr. Clevers was the first European researcher to win the prestigious Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2013, endowed with three million dollars. Dr. Elaine Fuchs, a researcher at the Rockefeller University (USA) and at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a point of reference in the study of skin stem cells and their role in the origin of cancer, also attended. In 2020, Dr. Fuchs won the Gairdner Award, considered a predictor of the Nobel Prize.

The contributions of these two scientists can already be found in textbooks on the subject and have had an enormous influence on understanding how tissues regenerate and also on the role of stem cells in cancer. Dr. Eduard Batlle is the head of the Cancer Science Programme at IRB Barcelona and is one of the principal world experts in research into metastatic colon cancer. This year, he was granted the Rei Jaume I Award in Medical Research, considered to be the most important prize for scientific activity in Spain.

Learn more on the IRB Barcelona website.