October 15, 2013

Meet Adrian Britschgi

Adrian Britschgi is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Mohamed Bentires-Alj’s group at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research. At FMI Annual Meeting 2013 at the end of September, he has been honored with the Max Burger Prize for his outstanding publication on the resistance mechanisms in metastatic breast cancer. The prize is awarded annually and was awarded for the first time in 2006 in acknowledge of Max Burger’s great influence on the FMI.

Q: Adrian, you received the Max Burger Prize only a few months after you also received the Charles Rudolphe Brupbacher Prize. Why is the research community so excited about your research results?
I think the excitement has several reasons. Our mechanistic studies have revealed a crosstalk between one of the most important—if not the most important—cell growth and survival signaling pathways, the PI3K pathway, and a major cytokine and hormone receptor signaling pathway, the JAK/STAT pathway. Upon PI3K inhibition, JAK/STAT5 and IL-8 are activated and enable tumor cells to escape PI3K inhibition, even favor their metastasis.
It is fascinating and at the same time intimidating to see how well adapted cancer cells seem to be to any perturbation of their signaling cascades. Our findings stress the urgency for basic research into the connections and crosstalks of signaling pathways to be able to find the cancer’s Achilles heel.
At the same time, our results have triggered so much attention in the community because PI3K inhibition is considered the probably most promising targeted therapy approach for a huge variety of cancers. Thus our findings potentially have direct implications for many pre-clinical and clinical studies.

Q: What motivated you to go into breast cancer research?
I am deeply interested in the molecular mechanisms of diseases as such, independent of disease or cancer type. Before joining the Bentires-lab, I worked on leukemia and completely different cellular processes and pathways, performing research just as fascinating as studying breast cancer. Having said that, I am an evolutionary biologist at heart, and the heterogeneity of breast cancer and of its progression, how it evolves and ever changes even in the absence of any treatment pressure is simply fascinating.

Q: What turned out to be the biggest challenges, what the biggest reward?
The challenges I faced were the same that many researchers face, I assume: Having to cope with disappointments, long working hours and publication pressure. Along with this, it is sometimes also frustrating to realize how certain research areas are more and more dominated by dogmas, which make it difficult to publish new, unexpected, complicated or “uncomfortable” results.
However, I am curious, I want to know, and if I’ve done everything I can to answer my hypothesis, if I’ve done it correctly, and the results prove me either right or wrong, this is rewarding and keeps me going on a daily basis.
At the same time, I also wish that my findings make a difference; a lot of money is invested in research worldwide and I think we have the responsibility to try everything we can to provide something in return. The cure to cancer may be a bit far-fetched, but maybe some baby steps in this this direction.

Q: Breast cancer is a disease with many different faces: it is caused by different defects, different signaling cascades are impaired, response to therapy differs from patient to patient, resistance mechanisms develop. Is there not a danger to lose sight of the big picture or is the big picture approach anyway not the most promising one?
This is a very relevant concern. With the increasing wealth of research being published every day, it becomes more and more difficult to stay abreast of the findings, to be able to identify the scientifically sound and relevant publications and to determine what directions and ideas to follow up on. It is very important to focus and find your specialty, so to say. But I still think it is just as crucial not to lose sight of the big picture and to remain critical about your own research, or as a mentor of mine used to say: “Try not to fall in love with the target”!

Q: During your projects you have worked closely with scientists from the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. How has this interaction shaped your research?
Our collaborations with Novartis Oncology Basel, DMP Cambridge & Basel and the GNF San Diego were simply great experiences and a unique opportunity to gain insight into basic research at NIBR. I wouldn’t say that these interactions “shaped” my research, but the support and advice we’ve received from our NIBR colleagues certainly drove our projects forward very efficiently. It was also very nice to see how similar our goals were throughout, which is the fundamental basis of a good collaboration. Looking back, this mutual interest, along with the sharing of the different expertise were the key to success.

» More about the Max Burger Prize
» More about Adrian Britschgi’s research

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