IMBA’s Josef Penninger wins $7.4 million Innovator Award from US Department of Defense

bridges vol. 36, December 2012 / Noteworthy Information

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Austrian researcher Josef Penninger, director of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA) in Vienna, has received a $7.4 million innovator's award from the US government’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programsto continue his research on a new approach to possibly preventing breast cancer and slowing the spread of tumors.

The innovator's award recognizes Josef Penninger's work in identifying a key molecular pathway related to how hormone replacement therapies and contraceptive pills can lead to breast cancer. His team provided the first genetic proof that a protein called RANKL is the master regulator of bone loss – a finding that has contributed to the development of a novel drug already approved for treatment of osteoporosis and skeletal-related events in multiple cancers. He was also the first to discover that RANKL not only regulates bone loss but is absolutely essential to enabling sex hormone-driven lactation in pregnant females, which could further explain the connection between sex hormones and bone loss. Based on these groundbreaking findings, Penninger's group went on to show that RANKL is indeed a link between sex hormones – in particular the sex hormone progesterone – and breast cancer, leading to the hypothesis that RANKL is a key driver in breast cancer initiation.

In addition, Penninger's group has developed entirely novel genetics tools, so-called haploid stem cells, to quickly assess the function of specific genes that cause breast cancer and help tumors to spread. "This is the next step in the post-genome era of cancer," says Penninger. "We will use our new technologies to rapidly check the function of hundreds or even thousands of human breast cancer gene candidates." The Austrian researchers expect to verify new breast cancer pathways, which they hope will quickly lead to major advances in preventing and treating the disease.

Supported by the $7.4 million award, Penninger intends to further use this knowledge to develop a new diagnostic method that will help predict the chances that any patient will develop breast cancer. At-risk patients will then be able to start preventive treatment using the existing RANK ligand-blocking medicines. Penninger adds: "If our experimental data could be extrapolated to humans, which is what we strongly believe, then we might have an entirely novel way of early breast cancer detection and, since RANKL inhibition is already used in patients, we even would have a medicine within immediate reach that could be used to possibly prevent the disease in those women at high risk."

For further information, please visit the DoD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs at: http://cdmrp.army.mil/bcrp/awards/11innawards.shtml and the Web site of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology.