News

Laureate 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).

 

Sarah-Maria FENDT
Fundamental Biomedical Research

Career – Research – Report of the Jury – Speeches


Her career

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.


Her research

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.

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.

– Chairman of the Jury

and

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).

– Members of the Jury


(Translated) Speech of Count Herman Van Rompuy
President of the Francqui Foudation

It feels good to be here with many, in contrast to the corona days. Back then we were only a few to be present here, though always in the presence of His Majesty the King, who insisted on personally presenting the highest scientific awards in our country. I say this because one of our two laureates, Professor Philippe Lemey, is being awarded for his pioneering research to combat the spread of viral infections. So at the Francqui Foundation we have not forgotten the pandemic. We must not fall into the trap of contemporary « actualism » where a page is turned too quickly and where sometimes too few lessons are drawn from history, even from recent history. Sometimes one draws conclusions too quickly, sometimes one forgets too quickly. For better or worse, we must remain lucid and judge each fact correctly. This is called wisdom.

In general, we must continue to think about the longer term. We must not give in to the great impatience that demands immediate results, including from research. Scientific research and development are the greatest investments in the future, both fundamental and applied research. This is why the work on the spread of cancer by our other Francqui-Collen Prize laureate Professor Sarah-Maria Fendt is so important. She, too, works at the KU Leuven. We are a country of major manufacturing pharmaceutical industries, both in the North and in the South of Belgium, but we are also in the koppelet in terms of medical research. The pandemic has affected us all and the fight against cancer has great support among the people, partially thanks to the actions of « Kom op tegen kanker ». Thus, the Francqui-Collen Prize closely matches the concerns and fears of a large majority of our compatriots. There is no gap between our agenda and that of the citizens of this country.

We owe this especially to the international jury headed by Professor Hans Clevers, himself a very distinguished researcher at the university and beyond. The jury does not take into account our many internal subtle balances but chooses the best, ‘merit based’. We also thank Professor Pierre van Moerbeke who guided the jury process from beginning to end. And we thank Professor Désiré Collen for his generosity and his support for scientific research in which he himself excelled.

The international jury awarded the two prizes after extensive deliberations. Their decisions are as follows.

Sarah-Maria Fendt focuses her fundamental research on cancer cell metastasis, in particular on the nutrients cancer cells need to proliferate in other parts of the body. Sarah-Maria Fendt and her team have discovered that these cells feed differently depending on where they spread. This process is known as metastasis. In addition, her research has shown that by targeting nutrient processing, it is possible to reduce cancer cell multiplication and proliferation in distant organs. Today, most cancer patients die of metastatic disease. The findings of Professor Fendt and her team pave the way for new, life-saving treatments.

Professor Fendt is not only interested in the nutrition of proliferating cancer cells, but also in the nutrition of patients. In her research on mice, she has found that a high-fat diet promotes the spread of cancer. In a forthcoming study, Professor Fendt and her team aim to discover that certain diets can also prevent the spread of cancer.

Scientific discoveries can sometimes be dangerous. Think of the atomic bomb or some forms of artificial intelligence, but with cancer research there is no doubt. The goal is to save an untold number of human lives or preserve the quality of life. That is meaningful in itself. And when I say meaningful it means that it serves other people. That could include you and me, because disease does not discriminate between people.

Thanks to his applied research, Philippe Lemey has developed important tools to combat the spread of viruses. These tools, implemented in the « BEAST » software program, map the genetic code of viruses in real time, enabling governments and health professionals to rapidly gain a clearer picture of the appearance of a virus, and take immediate action to halt its spread. For example, the program played a decisive role during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa (2014-2016) and the Lassa epidemic in Central Africa (2018).

Today, the software to which Philippe Lemey has contributed since 2004, is considered the global workhorse of genomic epi-demiology. It has revolutionized virology and our understanding of how viruses evolve, spread, impact and can be controlled.

The pandemic helped us discover virology and virologists. Together with the governments and thanks to the discipline of the vast majority of our fellow citizens, they have saved millions of lives around the world. Here too, there is no need to question the point of scientific research. It is self-evident.

The rationality of science contrasts sharply with the irrationality we too often find elsewhere. There is no rational or ethical argument to justify a war of conquest, or to envisage such a war. Today, there are even threats of nuclear war. Nostalgic or imperial nationalism is a disease we thought belonged to yesterday’s world. We were mistaken. Of course, we must respond to fear and uncertainty, but we must not contribute to reinforcing these negative emotions.

Reason and fairness together with the classical virtues of prudence, courage, moderation and justice, are the only chance for a good life for all. Only in that climate can there be creativity, innovation and open-minded inquiry. Only in that spiritual climate can we tackle the greatest problem of our time – the climate itself. The universities have the vocation to continue working on this. Much is at stake. We do not live in « business as usual » time.

The scientists we honor today are not only exceptional researchers but also demonstrate an ethical drive to do the right thing. We are all at the service of people’s health and well-being, at the service of the common good, the bonum commune. The Francqui-Collen Prize also serves this idea and this ideal.

All of us gathered here, and many others outside this room, are proud to see that our men and women are recognized far beyond our borders. We want to thank them today in their own countries.

I congratulate them once again.


(Translated) Speech of Professor Sarah-Maria Fendt

Sire,

It’s a great honor to receive the Francqui-Collen prize from your Majesty. Especially because this prize rewards the revolutionary achievements of great scientists in Belgium, and I would never have imagined that I would be among the recipients. The existence of this prize and its award to a fundamental scientist shows the great appreciation of the Royal Family and the people of Belgium for fundamental science, which is the prerequisite for future translational research.

Sire, Excellence, geachte gasten, dames en heren,

Thank you to the Francqui Foundation and the members of the international jury for choosing me for this important award. Our research aims to understand how cancer cells spread and how to prevent it. This is important because when cancers spread, a localized disease becomes a systemic disease, involving multiple organs which means that the cancer becomes extremely difficult to treat. We had the idea that cancer cells show a different nutritional pattern when they spread and that we can inhibit this to prevent and treat cancer metastasis. We discovered that nutrients can also signal and regulate the behavior of metastatic cancer cells. The presence of a primary tumor and certain components of our diet can prepare the nutritional environment of organs for the arrival of cancer cells. These discoveries may lead to pharmaceutical or dietary treatments that protect organs from the formation of metastases. Thus, we hope to increase the survival of cancer patients in the future. In receiving this award, the Royal Family and the Francqui Foundation highlight the importance of our research related to metastases.

Receiving this prize would not have been possible without the support of many people along the way. My studies of biochemistry at the Technical University of Munich sparked my interest in an academic career. My PhD at the ETH in Zurich taught me to take the bird eye’s view and look at the big picture in a quantitative way. Here, I would like to thank my PhD supervisor Uwe Sauer for giving me the freedom to explore and follow my own path. My postdoctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US widened my horizon and taught me it’s on me to succeed and to boldly go where no one has gone before. Here, I would like to thank Gregory Stephanopoulos for his unconditional support and trust in me. Without it I might not stand here today. I also would like to thank Matthew Vander Heiden for his collaboration, mentoring and advice. I learned so many things from him.

Ten years ago, I came to Belgium with an FWO-Odysseus II grant. Therefore, I would like to thank the rectors, vice-rectors, deans, directors and department heads (such as Luc Sels, Chris Van Geet, Paul Herijgers, Baki Topal, Johan Swinnen, Jo Bury, Johan Cardoen, Christine Durinx, Diether Lambrechts, Peter Carmeliet and Jean-Christophe Marine) for the opportunity to carry out our research at KU Leuven and the Flemish Institute of Biotechnology (VIB) and for their unfailing support.

Many thanks to Pierre Vanderhaeghen who nominated me for the Francqui-Collen Prize, especially since Pierre’s research on neurodevelopment is very different from our research on cancer metastases.

My great thanks also goes to all the national (such as FWO) and international (such as the European Research Council (ERC)) funding agencies and foundations (such as Foundation Against Cancer, Come on Against Cancer and Baillet Latour) that have supported our research. Our research at KU Leuven and the Flemish Institute of Biotechnology (VIB), and the fun atmosphere involved, would not have been possible without fantastic academic and clinical colleagues, thank you very much.

And a special thanks goes to the patients and their families for believing in science and donating samples for research.

Importantly, I would like to thank all current and former members of my lab. It has been outstanding to work with you and the research that led to receiving this prize would not have been possible without you. Research is a process and not always an easy one. I therefore want to especially thank my team for working so hard, for their fantastic team spirit and for going the extra mile.

Last but not least, I would like to thank all my friends in Belgium and all over the world and my family. My parents for their love, support and the possibility to do all the things they themselves did not have the opportunity to do growing up in the countryside of post-war Germany. Dear Mom, Dear Dad, I am proud to be your daughter! I also would like to thank my incredible sister who is always there for me and with who I always have so much fun. And finally, my beloved husband Simon with whom I share the passion for exploring the unknown and who has always stand by my side. Simon, it is wonderful to go through thick and thin with you and enjoy life.

Finally, I would like to end with a formal request to our political decision-makers. To receive the Francqui-Collen Prize today is a very great honor, and shows that foreigners are an important part of the success of Belgian universities and their research. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to urge you to support them and challenge the extremely high bar of language requirements for foreign professors. They are higher than the language requirements to become Belgian and a constraint to bringing the best international researchers to Belgium. The diversity added by international professors is in my opinion, an asset and will further enhance Belgium’s success internationally.

Sire, Excellence, chers invites, mesdames et messieurs,

Thank you once again for this extraordinary recognition and for your attention.