Erik Danen (Leiden University)

Erik Danen is Professor of Cancer Drug Target Discovery at the Division of Drug Discovery & Safety of the Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research (LACDR), Leiden University.

What sort of research are you doing?

“My research deals with cellular signaling mechanisms in normal and diseased cells and I have a long-standing interest in cell adhesion signaling. How is information from the environment sensed, integrated, and translated into a cellular response? What are the mechanisms controlling whether cells survive and grow or die, whether they move or stay in one place? How do cells respond to changes in their environment, including alterations in the surrounding ECM, proximity of other cell types, and exposure to harmful chemicals? How are these processes altered in cancer versus normal cells and how can we translate this knowledge into strategies for intervention?

Over the years, I have developed a pipeline of model systems to investigate these issues ranging from relatively simple 2D cultures to more elaborate 3D tissue culture models, and to  in vivo models. This is combined with perturbations of gene expression and gene function followed by biochemical analyses, ‘omics” approaches, and (real time) microscopy to unravel (adhesion) signaling pathways that control cell proliferation and cell migration.

Mostly, my research has been in the context of cancer, not only trying to unravel mechanisms of signaling but also aimed at identification of novel drug targets. I have focused on drug resistance and metastasis, the two major aspects of cancer contributing to mortality. Several important collaborations with on the one hand engineering and physics and on the other hand clinicians have been established to build new models, incorporate mechanical cues, and promote clinical translation of promising results.”

Breast cancer invading extracellular matrix in a 3D tissue culture model.(photo: Erik Danen)

Who are you working with, within hDMT?

“With the Mummery lab in LUMC and the Schmidt lab in the Physics Institute of our University, we work on pericyte biology using models with patterned ECM substrates and traction force microscopy. With the van Gent group in ErasmusMC we implement our cell printing technology in development of patient-derived cancer tissue-on-chip models. And with Genmab we use our 3D tissue culture models and imaging to unravel and optimize immune-mediated anti-tumor activity.

We are currently involved in a number of grant applications with hDMT partners in UTwente and TU/e to combine our own technologies with microfluidics engineering towards development of Cancer-on-Chip models.”

What do you like about hDMT?

“I like the opportunity to exchange ideas with scientists from different fields of expertise such as engineering and biology. There is a vibrant, exciting atmosphere in the hDMT working groups where new plans for instance on Cancer-on-Chip and Vessel-on-Chip are discussed and opportunities for joint projects are explored. In addition, the wider network of hDMT provides important contacts with industry and other organizations that contribute to project applications.”

What could hDMT do better?

“We do a good job in coming up with new project ideas and developing applications but the large number of partners in such applications sometimes leads to loss of focus. Initiatives with smaller teams and driven by existing collaborative work may be more successful. For this we will have to actually exchange people and do more work together to generate proof-of-concept for new applications.”

What else do you need from hDMT?

“Some of the contributions the partners make could be invested to the funding of small joint projects where data are generated that can form the basis for future applications. The junior challenge grant is a good example of this.”

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