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ERC Advanced Grants for Herta Flor on improving the prevention of chronic pain and for Michael Platten on personalized cellular immunotherapies against brain tumors

Date: 12.04.2024

Improving the prevention of chronic pain

With the help of a mechanism-based approach, CIMH-researcher Herta Flor wants to improve the prevention of chronic pain and has been awarded a highly endowed ERC Advanced Grant.

Chronic pain is a major health problem that is typically associated with mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety and is still difficult to treat despite enormous efforts by the healthcare system. The European Research Council (ERC) is now funding the project “A Mechanism-based Approach to the Prevention of Chronic Pain and its Comorbid Mental Disorders” (MECHPAIN) led by Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Dr. h.c. Herta Flor, Senior Professor at the Institute of Neuropsychology and Clinical Psychology at the Central Institute of Mental Health (CIMH) in Mannheim. The funded project envisages a shift from a symptomatic focus on chronic pain and predefined diagnostic categories to a mechanistic analysis and treatment of psychobiological factors. “This transdiagnostic approach takes a new look at the transition to chronic pain and the associated mental illnesses,” says Herta Flor, who is receiving the highly endowed ERC Advanced Grant for the second time in her research career. The award for the MECHPAIN project is associated with funding of around 2.4 million euros over a period of five years.

Transdiagnostic mechanisms

In current treatment practice, three diagnostic subtypes of pain are generally identified: primary musculoskeletal pain, neuropathic pain and primary headache. To date, these have mostly been analyzed and treated in isolation. The funded project aims to identify transdiagnostic mechanisms of chronic pain development in the three main diagnostic subtypes of pain using advanced machine learning algorithms, among other things, and then to investigate different treatment options on a modular basis. “Our research project focuses in particular on the mechanisms that play a role in the transition from acute to chronic disease. Through the personalized and modular use of treatments based on psychobiological factors, we hope to achieve a decisive improvement in the prevention of chronic pain,” says Herta Flor. Digital interventions, such as virtual reality, will also be used.

Herta Flor is deputy spokesperson of the SFB 1158 “From nociception to chronic pain: structure-function characteristics of neural pathways and their reorganization”. The Collaborative Research Center investigates how acute pain turns into chronic pain, which molecular and cellular mechanisms are behind this and how these findings can be used for therapies.

Source: News release of the CIMH Improving the prevention of chronic pain

Personalized cellular immunotherapies against malignant brain tumors

Neurologist Michael Platten, DKFZ and University Medical Center Mannheim, will use the ERC funding to develop and test personalized cellular immunotherapies against malignant brain tumors.

Malignant brain tumors are usually incurable diseases that often cannot be completely removed surgically. Cellular immunotherapies that specifically target such brain tumors could be a promising treatment alternative. Michael Platten wants to use artificial intelligence to advance personalized cellular immunotherapies against malignant brain tumours in a project funded by the ERC with 2.5 million euros over five years.

Improving anti-tumor activity of immune cells

Platten and his team recently invented an innovative approach for the development of cellular immunotherapies: They first isolate T cells from patients' tumor tissue - without knowing the specificity of their T cell receptors. An AI model trained on the genetic sequence data of these T cells can predict which T cell receptors recognize the cancer. This classifier, called "predicTCR ", identifies tumor-reactive T cells with an accuracy of over 90 percent.

The researchers now want to use predicTCR to investigate the genetic programs of tumor-reactive T cells isolated from brain tumors and use these programs to improve the anti-tumor activity of the immune cells.

To obtain therapeutic T cells, the genes of T cell receptors with strong activity against glioblastoma cells must be isolated and transferred to donor T cells. The resulting T-cell receptor transgenic T-cells will then be further tested and prepared for clinical application.

Source: Press release of the German Cancer Research Center ERC Advanced Grants for Hannah Monyer and Michael Platten

ERC Advanced Grant

With its Advanced Grants, the European Research Council supports visionary, curiosity-driven research projects carried out by individual researchers. The maximum duration of funding is five years.