BIAL Award in BiomedicineHigh Honour for Ground-breaking Findings on Brain Tumours

21 February 2024

Heidelberg scientists receive the BIAL Award in Biomedicine worth 300,000 euros

Their ground-breaking discovery of how healthy nerve cells in the brain make contact with glioblastoma tumour cells and thereby fuel the spread of these incurable brain tumours has earned a team of Heidelberg scientists a valuable award. The researchers at Heidelberg University, Heidelberg University Hospital and the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg have been honoured with the BIAL Award in Biomedicine. This award, which comes with prize money of 300,000 euros, is sponsored by the BIAL Foundation in Portugal. Dr Dr Varun Venkataramani, Prof. Dr Frank Winkler and Prof. Dr Thomas Kuner were able to receive the prize from the hands of the Portuguese health minister in a ceremony on 20 February 2024 in Lisbon. 

Bei der feierlichen Preisverleihung in Lissabon (v.l.): Der portugiesische Gesundheitsminister Manuel Pizarro, Prof. Dr. Frank Winkler, Dr. Dr. Varun Venkataramani, Prof. Dr. Thomas Kuner und Luís Portela, Vorstand der BIAL Foundation.

The BIAL Foundation awards its prize every two years for a scientific discovery in the field of biomedicine that stands out through extraordinary quality and scientific relevance. Dr Venkataramani, Prof. Winkler and Prof. Kuner, whose research takes place at the Medical Faculty Heidelberg of Heidelberg University, were honoured on behalf of all 29 authors of a “Nature” paper from 2019. The research results published there cast a completely new light on the interaction between brain tumours and nerve tissue. Using a wide range of methods, the researchers decoded the fact that the neurons of the diseased brain are in close contact with the tumour cells and form cell-to-cell contacts, known as synapses. They transmit excitation signals to the long cell extensions of the glioblastoma cells. This is a driving force for tumour growth and the spread of tumour cells in the brain tissue. Glioblastomas are highly aggressive brain tumours and, so far, incurable. At present the researchers assume that brain activity supports the glioblastomas in their spread.

According to the researchers, the studies opened “the door to clinical application”. In animal experiments, it was possible to interrupt the signal transmission from nerve cells to tumour cells, inter alia, by a drug used with epileptic conditions. Meanwhile, a clinical study has been started. The Heidelberg scientists hope that the research findings of 2019 may soon be able to support the treatment of those affected. In addition, there is increasing scientific evidence that the nervous system may also play a central role with other types of cancer. For Dr Venkataramani, Prof. Winkler and Prof. Kuner, the prize-winning studies therefore lay the foundation for a new area of research called cancer neuroscience, which seeks to understand the complex interplay of the nervous system and cancer.

The neurologist Varun Venkataramani conducted his research in the laboratories of Thomas Kuner and Frank Winkler. Prof. Kuner directs the Department of Functional Neuroanatomy at the Institute for Anatomy and Cell Biology, which is based in the Medical Faculty Heidelberg of Heidelberg University. Prof. Winkler heads the Research Group Experimental Neurooncology in the Clinical Cooperation Unit Neurooncology, directed by Prof. Dr Wolfgang Wick, for which the University Hospital and the German Cancer Research Center share responsibility. The BIAL Foundation was founded in 1994 by the BIAL pharmaceutical company and the Council of Rectors of Portuguese Universities, with the goal of promoting scientific research into human beings from both physical and mental angles.

Original publication

V. Venkataramani, D. I. Tanev, C. Strahle et al.: Glutamatergic synaptic input to glioma cells drives brain tumour progression, Nature 2019;573(7775):532-538.