The HERCULES project focuses on the most common and most difficult to treat subtype of ovarian cancer, high-grade serous ovarian cancer. These tumors consist of several heterogeneous cell populations with a large number of mutations. This genetic variability of the tumors makes it difficult to find drugs that would be able to kill all the cancer cells and to which some of the cells would not become resistant during treatment.
“Even though most patients respond well to current treatments initially, more than half of them experience relapse. In Europe alone more than 40 000 women die of ovarian cancer every year”, says Professor Sampsa Hautaniemi, coordinator of the project.
In the HERCULES project, the tumors are analyzed in an unprecedented level of detail to discover which cell populations the tumors consist of, how they respond to treatments and what makes them resistant to treatments.
Patient samples are used to study the function of genes and proteins at a single-cell level by using the latest mass cytometry, sequencing and computational methods. The researchers aim to find an optimal set of biomarkers that can be used to identify different cell populations from tissue samples. Fresh tissue samples and cell lines will be used to study the tumor cells’ response to several drug compounds.
The results from these experiments will be used in computational modelling and development of computational tools to predict which drug compounds will target each cell population best.
“Based on this information, the aim is to develop a test that can be used to predict which drug combinations will be most efficient against an individual patient’s cancer”, Hautaniemi says.
The results of the project will help doctors in finding the best treatments to each ovarian cancer patient.
The HERCULES project has received approximately 6 million euros from the European Commission’s Research and Innovation program (Horizon 2020) for five years, starting on January 1, 2016. University of Helsinki receives 2,4 million euros of the funding in total. In addition to coordinating the project, University of Helsinki researchers Sampsa Hautaniemi and Anna Vähärautio from the Faculty of Medicine and Tero Aittokallio and Krister Wennerberg from the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland have an important part in implementing the project. They are responsible for sample sequencing, data analysis, development of computational tools, single-cell sequencing and drug response experiments.
Other partners in Finland are from the University of Turku and the Hospital District of South-West Finland. They are in charge of recruiting patients, collecting and processing the samples and establishing cell lines.
Network modeling for the project is performed at the Institute of Pasteur in France and identification and sorting of cell populations at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità in Italy. Gene regulation and expression studies are done at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. Validation of the results and predictions will be done mainly in Italy at the University of Trieste and in Finland at the Universities of Helsinki and Turku using biobank samples, cell lines and experimental models. The test for drug response prediction will be developed by AB Analitica, an Italian SME.
Tiia Pelkonen, Project manager
+358 50 3199520
Sampsa Hautaniemi, Project coordinator
+358 50 336 4765
University of Helsinki, Finland
Hospital District of South-West Finland
University of Turku, Finland
University of Trieste, Italy
Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Italy
Karolinska Institutet, Sweden
Institute Pasteur, France
Ab Analitica SRL, Italy