In 2018, Prasanna Iyengar was awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie – Postdoctoral Fellowship (MSCA-IF) to implement a research project on bladder cancer at Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) in The Netherlands. This two-year fellowship allowed Prasanna to pursue an independent line of research as a senior postdoc, thereby elucidating mechanisms of bladder cancer metastasis as well as further developing his career track.
About Prasanna and the fellowship
Prasanna is originally from the southern part of India, from a port city called Chennai, although his professional career far exceeds the borders of India. “I performed my PhD studies at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan, on specific enzymes that are involved in the Ubiquitin-Proteasome System which, in simple terms, make up the recycling center of a cell. To further understand why some of these enzymes get functionally dysregulated and contribute to cancer development, I joined the Cancer Science Institute in Singapore in 2012 where I performed a postdoctoral stint. Thereafter, to establish a treatment strategy to block bladder cancer progression, I joined the LUMC. For this next career step, I was awarded the MSCA-IFin 2018. The pursuit of excellence and motivation to contribute to global challenges takes scientists such as myself to different places and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowships support such researchers”, says Prasanna.
The fellowship has given Prasanna the unique opportunity to pursue an independent line of research. Prasanna realized the importance of multidisciplinary collaboration in modern day biomedical research and for this line of research. “21st century science is not a one-man job. I received a lot of support from other scientists who work at the LUMC, opening doors to forge new collaborations and exchange ideas. More importantly, experienced staff at the LUMC have been very helpful in other aspects of research like project management, grant advice and financial management. The fellowship has also allowed me to attend conferences to present my findings for better outreach, and to join training programs for leadership and lab-management skills and other courses.”
Prasanna conducted research on the ninth most afflicted cancer in the world, namely bladder cancer. “I worked on the project EMBRACE funded by EU’s Horizon 2020 grant, aimed to address the complexities of the disease such as how its progression can be detected at an early stage and consequently be blocked with specific chemical inhibitors. The main challenge I faced was to basically explain the molecular mechanisms that make a certain treatment strategy work”, says Prasanna.
He performed a high-throughput screening with chemical inhibitors that target epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT). “EMT is a transition event that is seen in advanced stages of cancer whereby cells gain motility and aggressive behavior that enable them to metastasize to distant organs. Our results revealed the involvement of two notorious intracellular signaling pathways, i.e. TGF-beta and the MAPK pathways that enhance EMT and thereby augment the progression of the disease. I successfully delineated and uncovered the complex molecular interplay between these signaling pathways and described the role of an Ubiquitin ligase called SMURF2, which acts as a bridge between them. Furthermore, I have been successful in identifying two molecular targets SMURF1/2 and TRAF4 proteins that can serve as a potential biomarker for the early detection of bladder cancer progression. The project also enabled uncovering why TRAF4 has differential characteristics in bladder cancer compared to other types of cancer. I couldn’t have come to these results without the help of experts such as chemists, bioinformaticians, structural biologists and clinicians.”
Prasanna is very pleased with the progress he made in bladder cancer research. As Prasanna shares: “I am most proud of discovering the molecular mechanisms of bladder cancer progression and thus contributing to establishing a combinatorial treatment strategy to block advanced bladder cancer progression. The project highlights the importance of embracing clinically relevant questions with basic science. These two are two sides of the same coin and answering one aspect with the other can lead to bigger discoveries and better treatment options for cancer patients in the future. LUMC offers a unique blend of hospital and research facilities and was the ideal host institution for such an interdisciplinary project.”
So what’s next for Prasanna? “Now that the project is officially over, I will be joining the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam as a senior researcher. Here, I will be able to put my expertise and experience to full use. I strongly believe that identifying specific dysregulated molecules in the Ubiquitin-Proteasome System and designing state-of-the-art tools for manipulating the system has a lot of potential in the coming years.”
Learn more about the MSCA fellowships and get in touch!
If you would like to know more about the 2021’s MSCA-Postdoctoral Fellowships call, please visit the MSCA website. The LUMC grant advisors offer support to MSCA fellowship applicants, including an online information meeting, review of draft proposal and tips on LUMC/Netherlands-specific issues related to e.g. career development/training, communication/exploitation and ethics. Please get in touch with an LUMC scientist as potential supervisor for your fellowship first. Read more about the LUMC Research Themes at the LUMC website.
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