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Dr Florian Siebzehnrubl

"What excites me about ZEB1 is that it is a central player – it can orchestrate a lot of different functions that are very fundamental to malignancy." 

Who are you?

I am a Research Fellow within the European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute. I'm originally from Erlangen in Germany, where I grew up and went to university. I grew up in a neuroscience environment so I've always had an interest in the field. I am very new to the Institute (I've been here for three weeks!) having spent the last seven years at the McKnight Brain Institute in Florida.

What do you think cancer stem cells are and why do you think they're so interesting?

A cancer stem cell is a product of the stemness function at any given point in time and space. It is not a 'thing', it's more a state of being. The simple answer is that a stem cell is what a stem cell does! What I find interesting about them is that the cancer stem cell hypothesis has re-introduced the idea of heterogeneity into cancer research, meaning that not all cancer stem cells are the same – I think that's a very important point.

Could you tell me about your current research at the Institute at the moment?

Glioblastoma is the most common and lethal of the brain cancers, and the re-appearance, or recurrence, of these cancers after treatment is a particular problem contributing to patient demise. My research is directed at identifying molecular mechanisms that allow cancer cells to regrow into new tumours after therapy. I am particularly interested in how a protein called ZEB1 is enabling cancer stem cells to escape therapy and initiate recurrence. My research is at the interface of development and cancer.

How do you see your research being applied to the bigger picture?

The idea of stem cells in the brain is fairly novel – there has only been evidence in existence for the last 20 years or so, so it's still in its infancy. As the field is fairly young, it can be hard to predict accurately how it will develop and without our basic research, the field would never develop - it is pretty essential. Our work hints that there are some predictive values in the ZEB1 protein and I want to see it ultimately applied in clinic. What excites me about ZEB1 is that it is a central player – it can orchestrate a lot of different functions that are very fundamental to malignancy. We have observed that patients with lots of the protein present tend to have a poorer prognosis than those patients who don't, so you can make assumptions about the malignancy of the tumour. We have also observed that ZEB1 regulates resistance to chemotherapy, meaning that if it is shown to be more prevalent in certain patients, then chemotherapy is not the best course of treatment for them. If these findings can be tested on larger cohorts of patients, the outcome could be that we are a step closer to developing more tailored treatments or personalised medicine for patients in the future.

What does your job involve today?

Well, as I've only been here for three weeks, at the moment, I am spending time writing grant bids for funding. I am also working with colleagues in the US on papers which should be published in the near future, as well as ordering equipment for the lab – not very sciency, I'm afraid, but essential! I do like writing up my findings, but I love benchwork and I'm looking forward to setting mine up here and getting back in the lab.

What can you gain as a researcher from working at the Institute?

My field is working with brain cancers, so a big gain for me is working in a cancer research environment, alongside others who also have the same goals as me. An added bonus is that the Institute is housed in the same building as a Neuroscience Research Institute, so there is ample opportunity to collaborate across disciplines. It's been the perfect match for me!