IRSJD and IRB Barcelona strengthen their research collaboration in pediatric cancer

The Institut de Recerca Sant Joan de Déu (IRSJD) and the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) have strengthened their collaboration by signing an agreement that promotes basic research in the field of pediatric cancer, with a specific focus on translational science and the future commercial exploitation of the results obtained. Today, the director of IRSJD, Dr. Joan Comella, and the director of IRB Barcelona, Dr. Francesc Posas, formalised this agreement, which has an initial duration of four years, with the possibility of extension.

This joint initiative will bring about the establishment of a shared laboratory in Pediatric Cancer Epigenetics, headed by researcher Dr. Alexandra Avgustinova. Affiliated to both IRSJD and IRB Barcelona, Dr. Avgustinova will lead this laboratory on IRB Barcelona premises. The main objective of this alliance is to drive research on the epigenetics of pediatric cancer by leveraging access to the state-of-the-art infrastructure at IRB Barcelona, ultimately aiming to translate this innovative knowledge into tangible improvements in diagnosis, prognosis, and therapies for patients treated at the Pediatric Cancer Center Barcelona of SJD Barcelona Children's Hospital and in other parts of the world.

Dr. Joan Comella, director of IRSJD, emphasises that this agreement is part of the scientific excellence strategy of IRSJD and SJD Barcelona Children's Hospital, where alliances with prestigious research centres in their environment are established to enhance collaborative research on pediatric diseases, especially rare diseases, in a collaborative way. The initiative is part of the UNICAS strategy that drives the hospital to provide a comprehensive response to the medical and social challenge posed by rare diseases.

"The agreement we are signing today with IRB Barcelona is a clear example. Both institutions will work together to drive research in the field of pediatric cancer through the projects that Dr. Alexandra Avgustinova will develop in the two centres. On one hand, IRB Barcelona will provide the perspective of cutting-edge basic science, and on the other hand, IRSJD will contribute the more applied and clinical vision," comments Dr. Comella.

Dr. Francesc Posas, director of IRB Barcelona, asserts, "The collaboration with IRSJD, which we are strengthening today, is a crucial step in our mission to translate research into tangible outcomes for patients. By joining forces with a leading pediatric hospital like IRSJD, we are creating a unique ecosystem in which cutting-edge science and excellent clinical care converge, thereby accelerating the path from the laboratory to the patient."

The vulnerabilities of pediatric cancer

Childhood cancer is biologically different from cancer in adults. It is not characterised by high levels of mutations but by epigenetic dysregulation, meaning errors in gene regulation. In the absence of specific approaches, young patients are treated with standard therapies, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

The Pediatric Cancer Epigenetics laboratory, led by Dr. Alexandra Avgustinova, will address developmental tumours to identify specific epigenetic vulnerabilities in childhood cancer and exploit them in the pursuit of personalised therapies to improve the well-being and prognosis of patients.

"Our goal is to develop personalised therapies (that can range from gene therapies, epigenetics or immunotherapu, among others) by leveraging the initiation and progression process of tumours in developmental cancers," explains Dr. Avgustinova.

Rhabdoid cancer - a rare disease

Although rare, malignant rhabdoid tumours pose a significant threat, especially in very young children, usually affecting them during the first two years of life. Dr. Avgustinova has been awarded funding from the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) to investigate these tumours.

The goal is to better understand their development and identify the critical changes that lead a healthy cell to become cancerous. This study, which pays special attention to the interaction between genetic and cellular environmental factors, not only aims to develop more effective treatments for patients with rhabdoid tumours but also has the potential to provide a broader understanding of other types of childhood cancer.

Dr. Alexandra Avgustinova’s research team

Collaboration between IRSJD and IRB Barcelona over the years

This agreement strengthens collaboration that has been consolidated over the past decade, involving various joint research projects. A notable example of this fruitful collaboration is the creation of the spin-off Gate2Brain, driven by Dr. Meritxell Teixidor, CEO of the spin-off and former researcher at IRB Barcelona, and Dr. Angel Montero, coordinator of the Pediatric Cancer Treatment group at IRSJD. Furthermore, Dr. Jaume Mora, coordinator of the Pediatric Cancer Programme at IRSJD, has been collaborating and advising IRB Barcelona's Cancer Research Programme since 2014.

"The collaboration between IRB Barcelona and IRSJD provides an exceptional opportunity to leverage the synergy between the foremost pediatric hospital in Barcelona and an eminent research centre. This partnership enables us to establish a knowledge bridge between healthcare professionals who recognise and understand the most urgent clinical needs and a dynamic environment for the most innovative scientific research, equipped with cutting-edge technology," explains Dr. Avgustinova.

As a result of this and other collaborations, 17 joint scientific articles have been published between the two institutions, addressing fields such as childhood cancer, mental health, neurodegenerative diseases, and rare diseases, among others.

This strengthened alliance promises to contribute significantly to the progressive advancement of research and the improvement of treatments for pediatric cancer, demonstrating the positive impact of inter-institutional collaboration in the fight against this disease.

This alliance will drive research in pediatric cancer epigenetics, through access to IRB Barcelona's top-notch infrastructure, with the ultimate goal of translating this innovative knowledge into tangible improvements in diagnosis, prognosis, and therapies for pediatric patients.