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Report Sarah-Maria FENDT

Ceremony of the Francqui-Collen Prizes 2023 by His Majesty the King at the Palais des Académies on June 6, 2023
(by invitation only)

Background – Works – Report of the Jury


Fundamental Biomedical Research



Sarah-Maria Fendt was born 1980 in Krumbach and grew up in Oberrohr, which is a small village in the countryside of Bavaria in Germany. Sarah-Maria became interested in science during high school when choosing mathematics and chemistry as main subjects. Sarah-Maria started to study Chemical Engineering at the Technical University in Munich (TUM), but she realized during her freshman year that she wanted to understand life and disease. Therefore, she switched her subject and enrolled into biochemistry as a major at TUM and she did her master thesis at the Danish Technical University (DTU) in Lyngby. With her PhD at the Department of Molecular Systems Biology at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, she became an expert in metabolism and multi-omics data. After her PhD, she decided to combine her passion for biochemistry and systems biology with her interest in medical biology, especially cancer research, and she performed postdoctoral research at the Harvard Medical School in Boston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA studying cancer metabolism. Her postdoctoral research was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), and she received an AACR Membership Award to Support Early-Career Investigators-in-Training for her impactful postdoctoral research at MIT.

In 2013, Sarah-Maria moved to Belgium to start her independent laboratory at the Department of Oncology in Leuven and the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology with funding from a Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (FWO)-Odysseus II grant. She focused her research on metastasis formation which is the leading cause of death in cancer patients. In 2019, she was promoted to associate professor and in 2021 to professor. Her research led to multiple paradigm shifting research findings and she won several awards such as the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) Gold Medal (2020), the Baillet Latour Grant for Medical Research (2020), the Beug Prize for Metastasis Research (2021) and the 51st ARC Leopold Griffuel Award (2023, youngest prize winner). Moreover, she was elected as EMBO member in 2022. In addition, she received three research grants from Marie Curie Actions and the European Research Council: Marie Curie Career Integration grant (2013-2017), ERC Consolidator grant (2018-2023) and ERC Proof of Concept grant (2023-2024).

Sarah-Maria is married to Simon Kuhn, professor of Chemical Engineering at KU Leuven, and they live together in Leuven.

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Sarah-Maria Fendt and her team are investigating cancer metastasis as a metabolic disease.

Metastasis formation is the spread of cancer cells to distant organs. Unfortunately, there are today no drugs to effectively prevent or treat metastases across patients. Thus, metastasis formation remains the major cause of death in cancer patients.

Metabolism is a cellular network of biochemical reactions that is required to convert nutrients into energy and other products call metabolites that are needed to allow the cells within our body to function.

It has been already known since about 100 years that cancer cells have an altered metabolism. But the current idea was that this is largely a hyperactive metabolism allowing the uncontrolled proliferation of cancer cells. Sarah-Maria had the paradigm shifting idea that cancer cells eat differently when spreading to other organs and that we can target how they eat to treat cancer progression toward metastasis formation. Specifically, Sarah-Maria discovered with her team that the local environment and the process of spreading to distant organs defined what nutrients cancer cells eat and that cancer cells depend on these nutrients for metastasis formation.

In addition, it was believed that cancer cells mostly need nutrients to have enough energy and building blocks to growth, like you need electricity and bricks to build a house. Sarah-Maria discovered that nutrients and their processing can also give signals and regulate the behavior of metastasizing cancer cells, like an architect that coordinates how a house is built and where it is built.

Moreover, Sarah-Maria investigates how the patient’s physiology including diet, body composition or the presents of primary tumors defines the metabolism of metastasizing cancer cells. Sarah-Maria and her team discovered that the presence of a primary tumor and certain components of our diet prepare the nutrient environment of distant organs for the arrival of cancer cells. These discoveries may provide in the future pharmaceutical or dietary treatments that protect organs from metastasis formation.

Thus, Sarah-Maria and her team provide novel mechanisms that allow us to understand how cancer cells use nutrients to spread and how this can be exploited to inhibit metastasis formation.

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Report of the Jury (April 25, 2023)

The 2023 Francqui Prize in Fundamental Medical Research is awarded to Professor Sarah-Maria Fendt for her seminal contributions to the understanding of the role of metabolism in tumour metastasis. Although gene mutations and changes in protein activity are considered predominant drivers of the metastatic process, the plasticity of metabolism in cancer cells has gained more attention as an important component of tumour resistance to therapy. Sarah-Maria Fendt shows that cancer cells are dynamic and can change their metabolism depending on their stage, starting in the primary tumour, disseminating through the circulation and seeding in distant organs.

Among her remarkable achievements, Sarah-Maria Fendt has provided compelling evidence of cell metabolism as an important contributor to the initiation of metastasis from diverse tumors in mice and also in patients. She notably demonstrated that blood vessels regulate the levels of the metabolic enzyme phosphoglycerate dehydrogenase (PHGDH) and thereby facilitate the invasion of blood vessels by disseminating tumor cells.  Moreover, she has discovered several metabolic connections that were previously unknown. These provide a new perspective on the role of metabolism in metastatic cells leaving the primary tumour. Moreover, she has shown that when the tumour cells reach a new organ, this new niche  can change their metabolism. This uniqueness could be used to specifically target these cells.

Taken together, the work of Sarah-Maria Fendt has received world-wide recognition and offers hope for the future development of therapies for metastatic cancer.

Members of the international jury :

Hans Clevers obtained his MD degree in 1984 and his PhD degree in 1985 from the University Utrecht, the Netherlands. His postdoctoral work (1986-1989) was done with Cox Terhorst at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of Harvard University, Boston, USA. From 1991-2002 Hans Clevers was Professor in Immunology at the University Utrecht and, since 2002, Professor in
Molecular Genetics. From 2002-2012 he was director of the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht. From 2012-2015 he was President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). From June 2015-2019 he was director Research of the Princess Máxima Center for pediatric oncology. Since March 2022, Hans Clevers is Head of Pharma Research and Early Development (pRED) of Roche, Basel Switzerland.



Azad Bonni serves in an executive leadership role at Roche as Senior Vice President and Global Head of Neuroscience and Rare Diseases in pRED. He oversees a rich and differentiated portfolio from research to completion of Phase 2 trials. Before Roche, Azad was Head of Neuroscience at Washington University in St Louis, and prior to that Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard. Azad is an international leader in neuroscience who has made fundamental discoveries on mechanisms of neuronal connectivity in the brain. He received his MD at Queen’s University, neurology residency at McGill University, and PhD and postdoctoral training at Harvard University. Azad has trained over 40 exceptional graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, many of whom have launched their own independent laboratories at prestigious institutions. He has received numerous honors and awards including election to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Royal Society of Canada, and National Academy of Medicine.

Boudewijn Burgering is professor in Signal transduction at the Center of Molecular Medicine ( University Medical Center Utrecht, the Netherlands ). His research revolves around the role of PI3K signaling in disease and ageing, with a focus on the role of the kinase PKB/AKT and the transcription factor family FOXO. He made some high impact discoveries in this field and is EMBO member and member of Dutch consortium Oncode, acting on various reviewing committees, including ERC and organizer of international meetings.

Anne Grapin-Botton studied at Ecole Normale Superieure (Cachan) and University Paris 7. She obtained a PhD from University Paris 6, focusing on nervous system development and studied endoderm development as a post-doc in Harvard University. Anne Grapin-Botton and her group investigate the impact of the cellular and organ architecture on the cells’ fate choices and how single cells act in a community to generate an organ. To do so, they use mouse genetics, live imaging in 3D and they developed 3D in vitro “organoid” culture systems modelling development. More recently they used human in vitro stem cell models investigate human development. These studies are intended to gain insight into human syndromes impairing pancreas development and they guide the generation of replacement beta cells for Diabetes therapy.

Guido Kroemer is currently Professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Paris-Cité, Director of the research team « Metabolism, Cancer and Immunity » of the French Medical Research Council (INSERM), Director of the Metabolomics and Cell Biology platforms of the Gustave Roussy Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Hospital Practitioner at the Hôpital Européen George Pompidou, Paris, France. Dr. Kroemer’s work focuses on the pathophysiological implications of cell stress and death in the context of aging, cancer and inflammation. »

Akiko Iwasaki, Ph.D. is a Sterling Professor of Immunobiology at the Yale University School of Medicine. Her research focuses on the mechanisms of immune defense against viruses at mucosal surfaces, which are a major site of entry for infectious agents. Professor Iwasaki received her Ph.D. in Immunology from the University of Toronto and completed her postdoctoral training with the National Institutes of Health before joining Yale’s faculty in 2000. She has received many awards and honors and has been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator since 2014. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2018, to the National Academy of Medicine in 2019 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2021. Professor Iwasaki has been a leading scientific voice during the COVID-19 pandemic and is also well known for her Twitter advocacy on women and underrepresented minorities in the science and medicine fields and has been named to the 2023 STATUS list of the ultimate list of leaders in life sciences.

Marion Koopmans is director of the Department of Viroscience at Erasmus Medical Centre in The Netherlands, the WHO collaborating centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID), director for EID of the Netherlands Centre for One Health NCOH and scientific director of the Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness Centre in Rotterdam/Delft, The Netherlands.

Her research focuses on emerging infections with special emphasis on unravelling pathways of disease emergence and spread at the human animal interface. Koopmans coordinates the EU funded consortium VEO, which develops risk based innovative early warning surveillance in a One Health context, and is deputy coordinator of a recently awarded HERA funded network of centres of excellence for EID research preparedness.

Ton Logtenberg is an immunologist and professor in the Center for Translational Immunology in the University Medical Center Utrecht, The Netherlands. Ton is the founder and former President and CEO of Merus, a Nasdaq listed clinical-stage biotechnology company advancing targeted treatments based on multi-specific antibodies to address the unmet needs of cancer patients. He is the Chairman of the Board of biotechnology companies Synox Therapeutics and Mestag Therapeutics and a Board member of the Forbion European Acquisition Corporation. Ton is a Venture Parture at Forbion Capital Partners, a Dutch VC firm that invests in Life Science companies.

Tamara Schikowski is an Environmental Epidemiologist and is currently head of the research group ‘Environmental epidemiology of lung, brain, and skin aging’ at the IUF-Leibniz Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Duesseldorf, Germany.
Her research is directed at understanding how long-term exposure to air pollution and other environmental influences can cause diseases in populations, in particular in vulnerable groups such as the elderly and children. She is PI of several large-scale cohort studies and is involved in many national and international projects in China, India, and Japan. She is an executive board member of the German National Cohort (NAKO).


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