Vidi-grant Robbert Spaapen: Unmasking tumors

Robbert Spaapen will receive a Vidi-grant of 800,000 euros from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Vidi is an important personal grant for experienced scientists in the Netherlands. With this grant Robbert aims to understand how tumor cells mask themselves for the immune system. This could lead to an improvement of immunotherapy. 

ROBBERT SPAAPEN: “Ever more cancer patients are receiving immunotherapy: a treatment that initiates or strengthens immune responses. To increase the chances of a cure, my group is investigating how we can improve immunotherapy for tumors.

We are trying to make tumor cells more visible to the immune system. Previously, we discovered that certain cancer cells are not properly recognized by the immune system because they cover themselves with sugar-containing lipids: glycosphingolipids. A therapy to inhibit these molecules could enhance existing immunotherapies.

We now know that it is more complicated. Normal body cells also contain sugar-containing lipids, but their composition differs from that on tumor cells. With this new grant, we will study how the sugar-containing lipids on tumor cells impede an effective immune response, and we want to figure out the exact structure of the sugar-containing lipids that are responsible for this.

To do this, we will extract these molecules from patients’ tumor cells, and analyze them. The better we understand the composition and function of these sugar-containing lipids, the greater our chance of developing new drugs for cancer patients.” 

Dr. Robbert Spaapen is a group leader at the Immunopathology Department of Sanquin Research

Robert Spaapen