Published 5 October 2020 by Daniela Thiel

New Approach to Tumour Diseases

Charlotte Dahlem submitted her thesis for her PhD this summer. Photos/Credits: Jan Henrich/Saarland University

Charlotte Dahlem is one of the young scientists who are invited to participate in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2021. In the summer of 2020, the pharmacist completed her doctoral thesis in the field of pharmaceutical biology at Saarland University, which has now been awarded with the prize of the Hans-and-Ruth-Giessen-Foundation. Her doctorate is dedicated to the natural substance Thioholgamide A, which could lay the basis for a double strategy against tumour diseases: It inhibits the cell growth of the tumour and additionally ensures that the macrophages, also known as “scavenger cells”, exhibit tumour cell-fighting activity. This is because macrophages can be influenced by neurotransmitter emitted by the tumour, thus hindering the body’s own immune defence and promoting tumour growth.

The result is a worsening of the prognosis of affected patients. The prize money for the new approach to solving this problem in cancer therapy will be used by the Saarland resident for research stays, i.a. in Stockholm/Sweden.

We were able to talk to her about her research and the expectations of the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

How did you come up with this new approach to tumour control as a topic for your doctoral thesis?

As so often, there was also a bit of luck in the game to find such a project. I worked in a group that dealt with both the development of tumours and the activation of macrophages in inflammatory processes. There I found a natural substance that can influence both tumour cells and macrophages in the tumour microenvironment. So I studied the effects of different natural substances on these two cell types and actually came across a promising profile: With the natural substance Thioholgamide A (ThioA) I was able to see evidence that it inhibits the growth of tumours and changes the macrophages from a tumour-promoting to a tumour-fighting phaenotype. I was then able to pursue this double effect in my doctoral thesis.

What were the biggest challenges in this research work?

It was an open issue, especially at the beginning, where the issue was very broad. Therefore, many intermediate steps had to be discussed, overturned and strategies had to be adjusted. So time management was a very important and challenging task. But within three years, between July 2017 and July 2020, I was able to complete my work and thus also my doctorate.

What was the special feature of your approach to find out more about the new substance?

The studies of anti-tumour effects of new substances mostly involve only tumour cells. The tumour microenvironment, especially the macrophages, has a decisive influence on the effectiveness of new therapies. Therefore, we have focused our search on substances that are able to positively influence not only tumour cells, but also macrophages. Another important part of my doctoral thesis was to study the impact of these substances on zebrafish models. Tumour models in zebrafish embryos can provide valuable insights for the research of new substances and enable the investigation of new substances that are only available in limited quantities. During a stay in Japan, I was able to acquire methods for dealing with research on zebrafish. During my next research stays i. a. in Stockholm, which I hope can be realised in a timely manner, I will deepen this issue.

What’s next concerning your research topic?

With my thesis, I have laid the basis for a potentially novel approach to cancer therapy. However, in order to better understand the effect of ThioA in the body and possibly to develop a therapy from it, further studies need to be carried out. After that, the active substance would of course have to be tested in clinical studies. So it will still take time for the active substance to be used.

How did you decide to study pharmacy and become a scientist?

My goal was to work in a medical/therapeutic profession, which was already clear to me during school time. But I did not want to study medicine and become a doctor. However, I found medical research exciting and read a lot about it. It is also possible to combat diseases by scientific knowledge and thus help people. After a short detour to biochemistry, the pharmacy proved to be the perfect environment for me. This topic combines a broad scientific knowledge with a medical application – for me the optimal combination.

What are you looking forward to most with regard to the 70th Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau?

I always find it very enriching to exchange ideas with other people, also from other disciplines, and to get to know their perspectives on scientific issues. That’s why I also find research stays at other universities very exciting. Especially the upcoming interdisciplinary Lindau Meeting is perfect for this exchange. And thanks to the numerous lectures at a Lindau Meeting, you will definitely get inspiration for your own work.

Charlotte Dahlem

Photo/Credit: Claudia Ehrlich/Saarland University

Charlotte Dahlem studied pharmacy and currently belongs to the team of Professor Alexandra K. Kiemer as a PhD student in Pharmaceutical Biology at Saarland University.

She was able to submit her thesis in July 2020 and in September 2020 she received the prize of the Hans-and-Ruth-Giessen-Foundation for her research work.

Charlotte was selected to participate in the interdisciplinary 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Daniela Thiel

Editor and part of the communications team of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.