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Foreword by VHIO’s Director

2020: An Extraordinary Year for Biomedicine, Cancer Science and Clinical Oncology

Josep Tabernero
Director, Vall d'Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO)

Considering the many challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, I cannot forget the particularly dark times. How this terrible virus swept the world and ravaged human lives, with a devastating death toll. But, in the context of biomedicine, there were many bright moments that translated into opportunities and hope.

This pandemic has shone a light on the breathtaking ability of medical science to identify and combat a major new threat to public health globally. At lightning speed, researchers around the world worked tirelessly together to successfully develop COVID-19 vaccines.

They were able to do so quickly for several reasons: research experience in developing vaccines against related viruses; years of critical basic research in understanding and applying RNA biology; faster ways to manufacture vaccines; hefty funding that enabled the running of multiple trials in parallel; and regulatory bodies moving more quickly in response.

There are many lessons here that could be applied to other diseases including cancer in order to accelerate progress and accelerate improved clinical outcomes for countless patients worldwide.

Shaped by these reflections, the theme of this year’s report -- VHIO in 2020: a year of challenges, opportunities and hope -- captures our experiences, endeavors, and collective spirit. We invited our Group and Unit leaders to reflect on 2020, and come up with a noun, adjective, concept, or priority area, which they each considered as particularly relevant -- though not exclusive -- to this momentous past year. Written on each of their respective masks, the design depicts the very familiar Zoom virtual meeting scenario, which is so symbolic of the COVID-19 era.

Due to the safety and logistical considerations brought about by COVID-19, and to reflect the reality of balancing those physically working in the lab and clinical settings with those working from home, we revisited our approach to this year’s report’s photo shoot. We translated this obstacle into opportunity.

With the exception of our larger groups, we sought to include as many group members as possible without masks. Each photo was taken individually, at a distance, in locations away from areas dedicated to the care of our cancer patients. We also welcomed faculty who were working at home during each photo session, inviting them to send their photos from home.

COVID-19: from crisis to opportunity

Using a combination of surveys and interviews of oncology clinical investigators globally, and analyses of data from IQVIA and Clinical Trials.gov, a study(1) explored how COVID-19 has affected the management of ongoing clinical trials.

The focus of this research was to provide an initial evaluation of COVID-19 on the landscape of clinical trials for cancer around the world. As noted by the authors, while the data were limited by sample size, the findings indicated that patient enrolment in active clinical trials for cancer has been severely hampered by the pandemic during the survey assessment period (23 March–3 April).

Crucially, their data highlighted the importance of getting telemedicine running smoothly in advance to enable a seamless transition in patient care. I completely agree. The application of telemedicine has most certainly been expedited by COVID-19, possibly representing a tipping point, the advent of remote patient care in bringing crucial medical expertise to more patients.

Authors of a comprehensive survey(2) on what physicians have learned and the interrelationship between COVID-19 and cancer, argue that while COVID-19 has impacted many aspects of cancer research, treatment and patient care, it has also spurred creative solutions. I also believe that insights into this terrible virus, in addition to the speedy development of vaccines, have also been accelerated in part by what we have learned through years of research aimed at combating cancer.

Like many other medical oncology departments, the team at Vall d’Hebron had to overcome many challenges in 2020, including optimizing medical infrastructures overwhelmed by COVID-related illnesses and responding to the inevitable pressures on resources and staffing.

Spurred by our shared determination and dedication to providing the best treatment options and care for our patients, we swiftly adapted to new circumstances -- the essence of the scientific endeavor. We turned challenges into opportunities. Our cancer service underwent extensive changes to reduce COVID-19 exposure among patients and our healthcare teams. In addition to some deviations from existing protocols and administration of novel therapies, including immunosuppressive treatment regimens, we also adopted technology-based as well as remote interventions and patient care activities to reduce on-site monitoring visits and in-person visits, thereby minimizing risk of viral infection and disease spread.

Regarding the future impact of COVID-19 on cancer treatment and research, we should expect further challenges ahead, especially given the threat of new waves and strains. We must all continue to adapt and respond to the ongoing pressures, pursue our clinical research, and steadfastly improve the early detection and diagnosis of cancer.

A bright beacon of hope

With the roll-out of vaccines, preventative strategies on stream, and robust research focused on viral structural, genomic surveillance, and virus-host cell interactions, I am optimistic that the biomedical community and beyond will be able to more harness and control this epidemic.

Let us return to the crucial role of research. VHIO investigators also joined the historic, scientific effort in the COVID-19 era. Together with other partners in the Cancer Core Europe Consortium, we co-authored a paper sharing our experiences and new directions implemented to adapt to the pandemic, as well as highlighting issues implicated in adjusting conventional cancer care during the first wave of the pandemic. This timely Review(3) will help guide other experts and medical institutions in treating cancer during such difficult times.

We also co-led a multi-center observational study(4) to provide a clinical portrait of the epidemic in European cancer patients .This study addressed several important questions as to whether, within a broader population of cancer patients, outcome of COVID-19 is more strongly related to patients’ demographic factors including age and comorbidities over oncologic features.

Between February and April 2020, almost 900 patients with confirmed COVID-19 and cancer were identified across the 19 surveyed European centers. (This was, at the time, the largest and most geographically diverse study to document COVID infection outcomes in cancer patients.)

The results argued against a detrimental influence of active anticancer therapy in determining outcome from virus infection. This data raises questions regarding the role of COVID-19-specific therapy in the management of infected patients with cancer. To support clinical risk stratification during the pandemic, and to avoid indiscriminate deferral of anti-cancer medicines aimed at improving outcomes for these patients, the combination of tumor type and demographic factors (including gender, age, and comorbidities) should be carefully considered in the clinic.

Championing transformative translational & clinical research against cancer

Despite the unprecedented difficulties we all faced in 2020, I can proudly report that we celebrated a record-breaking year in terms of scientific output. In collaboration with numerous groups across the globe, VHIO researchers and clinical scientists published an extraordinary 387 scientific articles in leading journals as corresponding, senior, or co-authors. Many of these were published in the world’s most prestigious scientific and medical journals.

I am pleased to report that 2020 celebrated a record-breaking year for us in terms of scientific output. In collaboration with numerous groups across the globe, VHIO researchers and clinical scientists published an impressive 387 scientific articles in leading journals as corresponding, senior, or co-authors. Many of these were published in the world’s most prestigious scientific and medical journals.

In addition to my pick of ‘core’ studies co-authored by multiple VHIO groups, highlighted in my Foreword this year, as well as a position paper on enhancing global access to cancer medicines, here is just a small sample of our studies that also deservedly made headlines in 2020:

Advancing insights into predictive biomarkers of response & acquired resistance to targeted therapy against HER2-negative metastatic breast cancer

Violeta Serra, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Experimental Therapeutics Group.

Research led by Violeta Serra, Principal Investigator of our Experimental Therapeutics Group, sought to identify response biomarkers and unmask mechanisms of resistance to capivasertib, an AKT inhibitor showing promising activity in combination with chemotherapy against triple-negative metastatic cancer harboring P13/AKT-pathway alterations, and estrogen receptor positive breast cancer.

This multi-center study assessed genetic and proteomic markers in 28 HER2-negative patient-derived xenografts (PDX), and in patient samples, and correlated capivasertib sensitivity as a single agent and in combination with chemotherapy, paclitaxel. In so doing, this study(5)provides additional preclinical insights into predictive biomarkers of response and acquired resistance to this therapy against HER2-negative metastatic breast cancer, toward the more precise selection of patients who would most likely benefit from this therapy.

Cerebrospinal fluid as liquid biopsy for the precise characterization & policing of medulloblastoma

Joan Seoane, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Gene Expression & Cancer Group, and an ICREA Research Professor.

Building on previous research led by Joan Seoane, Principal Investigator of our Gene Expression & Cancer Group, and an ICREA Research Professor, findings from a proof-of-concept study(6), show that the analysis of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA), allows for the more precise characterization, molecular diagnosis (including subtyping and risk stratification), and real time tracking of medulloblastoma– the most prevalent malignant brain tumor in childhood.

Not only does circulating tumor DNA from cerebrospinal fluid reveal genomic alterations during disease evolution -even prior to surgery- to more precisely guide treatment decision making, this approach translates in less invasive sampling, better identification and characterization of disease relapse.

In short, cerebrospinal fluid as liquid biopsy, pioneered by Joan, enables an earlier and more accurate molecular diagnosis, closer monitoring of patients, and provides crucial data on minimal residual disease tumor evolution and disease at relapse. Larger cohort studies are now warranted to bring cerebrospinal fluid as liquid biopsy closer to the clinic and deliver on the promise of precision medicine for the treatment of this tumor type.

Practice-changing data in HER2+ breast cancer

Cristina Saura, Principal Investigator of our Breast Cancer & Melanoma Group.

First authored by Cristina Saura, Principal Investigator of our Breast Cancer & Melanoma Group results reported from the multi-center phase III NALA study(7) provide a new, more effective treatment strategy for patients with metastatic HER2-positive breast cancer, which is generally more aggressive than other types of breast cancer.

This breakthrough study enrolled over 600 patients across the participating sites who had received two or more prior anti-HER2 based regiments in the metastatic setting. The investigators demonstrated that treatment combining neratinib plus capecitabine, significantly improved disease-free survival, compared with therapy with lapatinib plus capecitabine. More specifically, they reported that the risk of disease progression can be reduced by 24% in this particular patient population.

On the basis of these results, in early 2020 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved neratinib in combination with capecitabine for adult patients with advanced or metastatic HER2-positive breast cancer who have previously received two or more previous HER2-directed therapies in the metastatic setting. Notably, neratinib was granted FDA Fast Track designation.

KEYNOTE -177: the promise of pembrolizumab as monotherapy against MSI-H-dMMR Advanced Colorectal Cancer

VHIO’s Elena Élez, Medical Oncologist and Clinical Investigator of our Gastrointestinal & Endocrine Tumors Group, co-directed by Josep Tabernero and Teresa Macarulla.

As a leading cause of cancer death worldwide, colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third most-common cancer globally. The mismatch repair of microsatellite-instability- high (MSI-H) pathway, a major driver of this tumor type, can be found in around 15% of cases. This discovery has not only provided precious insights into the diversity of CRC, but also calls for a more personalized approach for the optimal treatment of these patients.

Building on the interim analysis of the phase III KEYNOTE-177 trial, showing that pembrolizumab as monotherapy without chemotherapy is both more effective and less toxic as first-line treatment for patients with MSI-H or mismatch repair–deficient (dMMR) CRC, subsequent data(8) from this phase III open-label trial, led by Thierry André, Sorbonne Université and Hôpital Saint Antoine, Paris (France) , not only represents important progress in biomarker-driven approaches to more effectively target this disease, but also highlights the promise of immunotherapy in this patient population.

Co-first authored by researchers including VHIO’s Elena Élez, Medical Oncologist and Clinical Investigator of our Gastrointestinal & Endocrine Group that I co-direct alongside Teresa Macarulla, the KEYNOTE-177 Investigators showed that pembrolizumab led to significantly longer progression-free survival than chemotherapy when received as first-line therapy for MSI-H-dMMR metastatic colorectal cancer, with fewer treatment-related adverse events.

KEYNOTE-177 demonstrates the value of MSI-H status in more precisely guiding the treatment of our patients and supports how a deeper understanding of the molecular makeup of these tumors are enabling researchers to advance personalized medicine as well develop more potent immune-based strategies against metastatic CRC.

As a KEYNOTE-177 Investigator, I was invited to comment on the relevance of this potentially practice-changing study in a recently published Research Highlight(9).

Gene-targeted olaparib delivers powerful blows against BRCA1/2 mutated prostate cancer

Joaquin Mateo, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Prostate Cancer Translational Research Group.

First authored by Joaquin Mateo, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Prostate Cancer Translational Research Group, results from the investigator-initiated TOPARP-B multi-center phase II trial(10) confirm the anti-tumor activity of single agent PARP inhibitor, olaparib, against metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC).

Led by Corresponding Author Johann de Bono, Institute of Cancer Research – Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, London (UK), the B-half of this academic study drew on the results reported from TOPARP-A, where the association between DNA repair defects and response to olaparib in 49 molecularly unselected patients was first described. Designed as an open-label single arm study, the second in this two part adaptive trial assessed the efficacy of treating mCRPC patients with DNA-damage repair (DDR) alterations, who had previously received chemotherapy and were no longer responding to standard treatments.

Investigating different doses of olaparib and correlating several genomic aberrations and anti-tumor activity, the researchers also confirmed the anti-tumor activity of this agent against advanced prostate cancer with defective DNA repair secondary to either germline or somatic gene inactivation. They found that overall, 47% of patients with these DNA repair defects responded to olaparib, putting the brakes on disease progression for an average of 5.5 months. The most common defects were BRCA mutations, although various others were also identified in other genes including PALB2 and ATM, among others.

Importantly, those men with BRCA1/2 mutated disease responded the best, with 80% responding and 40% free of cancer progression for over a year. The high and durable responses observed in this subpopulation of patients with mCRPC support the implementation of genomic stratification of metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer in clinical practice based on tumor sequencing. Based on the findings, this gene-targeted approach could help guide treatment decisions as well as match more effective therapies to the molecular make up of individual patients’ tumors.

Immune-based therapy promises a new therapeutic avenue for patients with advanced or recurrent endometrial cancer

Ana Oaknin, Principal Investigator of our Gynecological Malignancies Group.

Preliminary results(11) from the multi-center, non-randomized GARNET phase I study report promise of a novel anti PD-1 therapy, dostarlimab, for the more effective treatment of patients with recurrent or advanced mismatch repair-deficient endometrial cancer; representing 30% of patients suffering from this tumor type.

The study investigators, led by Ana Oaknin, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Gynecological Malignancies Group, seek to improve clinical outcomes for this patient population who have a poor prognosis, and for whom there is no effective standard of care once their disease progresses on treatment with chemotherapy. Specifically, the phase I GARNET trial enrolled 104 patients with recurrent or advanced mismatch repair-deficient endometrial cancer, and was designed to respond to an unmet clinical need. Namely, to improve outcomes for this sub-population of patients whose overall survival is approximately 12 months. Once these patients progress on prior first-line treatment with platinum-based chemotherapy, there are currently few other options available.

Initial data shows that the administration of dostarlimab as monotherapy achieves significant disease control with an objective response rate of 42%. Moving forward, the researchers will seek to complete the entire cohort of the study, with approximately 140 patients. Larger trials, including the currently enrolling randomized, placebo-controlled RUBY trial of dostarlimab in combination with carboplatin-paclitaxel in primary advanced or recurrent disease, should enable them to more deeply explore the efficacy and safety profile of this novel immunotherapy.

Novel MRI processing pipeline for the more precise evaluation of post-surgery residual tumor tissue in patients with glioblastoma

Raquel Perez-Lopez, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Radiomics Group.

Research(12) directed by Raquel Perez-Lopez, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Radiomics Group, in collaboration with colleagues at the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL), and Bellvitge University Hospital, Barcelona (Spain), sought to establish whether the enhancement of quantification in post-operative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), as an indicator of residual tumor impact, can more effectively predict long and short survival in patients with glioblastoma.

Performed by MRI swiftly after surgical procedures, radiological visual assessment of remaining tumor tissue post-surgery is currently the standard of care in clinical practice. While the extent of resection is a well-known prognostic factor in glioblastomas, inter-reader reproducibility remains limited and hampers comparisons across centers and studies.

By potentiating the prognostic value of residual tumor enhancement, the researchers identified a method to facilitate the quantification of remaining tumor using a processing pipeline of multi-sequence MRI scans. They also analyzed and internally validated a multivariate prognostic model including quantified residual tumor, perfusion, radiomics and other clinical variables. Results showed that enhanced tumor thickness and radiomics have a high prognostic value and are simple to implement.

Importantly, their novel MRI processing pipeline described in this study is not only an easy and rapid approach to more accurately evaluate post-surgery residual tumor tissue, but could also be readily implemented in routine clinical practice.

Ripretinib as breakthrough therapy for advanced gastrointestinal stromal tumors

César Serrano, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Sarcoma Translational Research Group.

The INVICTUS multi-center phase III study, directed by Jean-Yves Blay, Université Claude Bernard, Lyon (France), included 129 patients with advanced gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST) who had received prior treatment with 3 or more kinase inhibitors, including imatinib, with no other therapeutic options available.

Patients were randomized to receive either ripretinib, a novel therapy developed to treat GIST, or placebo. Results from this practice-changing study(13), co-authored by César Serrano, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Sarcoma Translational Research Group, demonstrated the efficacy of ripretinib in patients who had exhausted all other therapeutic options available.

Reporting several important outcomes, the investigators showed that ripretinib significantly reduced the risk of disease progression or death by up to 85%, as compared to placebo. This was translated into a higher overall survival, which reached 15.1 months compared to 6.6 months in the placebo group.

A lasting response was also achieved, and 51% of patients who received ripretinib remained progression-free at 6 months, compared to 3.2% in the placebo group.

Collectively, the results from the INVICTUS study led to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval (May 2020) of ripretinib for adult patients with advanced gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) who have received prior treatment with 3 or more kinase inhibitors, including imatinib.

Of note, FDA granted this application priority review, fast track, and breakthrough therapy designation. Ripretinib also received orphan drug designation.

Insights by VISION: tepotinib for the treatment of metastatic non-small cell lung cancer

Enriqueta Felip, Principal Investigator of our Thoracic Tumors & Head and Neck Cancer Group.

The multi-cohort, open-label, phase II single-arm VISION study, directed by Paul K. Paik, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), New York (USA), was designed to evaluate the efficacy and side effect profile of MET inhibitor tepotinib in patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), with a confirmed MET exon 14 skipping mutation.

The study primary endpoint was the objective response by independent review among patients who had undergone at least 9 months of follow-up. Response was also analyzed according to whether the presence of a MET exon 14 skipping mutation was detected on liquid biopsy or tissue biopsy.

The results(14), co-first authored by the study investigators including VHIO’s Enriqueta Felip, Enriqueta Felip, Principal Investigator of our Thoracic Tumors & Head and Neck Cancer Group, showed that the selective MET inhibitor tepotinib has durable clinical activity in this patient population. This study validates MET exon 14 skipping mutation as a therapeutic target, and emphasizes importance of routine testing for these MET alterations by liquid or tissue biopsy.

On the basis of results reported in the VISION trial, in February 2021, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted accelerated approval to tepotinib for adult patients with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) harboring these mutations.

VHIO’s Research Unit for Molecular Therapy of Cancer (UITM) – CaixaResearch turned 10

Elena Garralda, Principal Investigator of our Early Clinical Drug Development Group, and Director of VHIO’s Research Unit for Molecular Therapy of Cancer (UITM) – CaixaResearch.

VHIO continues to establish itself as a leading reference in advancing drug development and targeted therapies against cancer. Our Research Unit for Molecular Therapy of Cancer (UITM) – CaixaResearch, founded in 2010, has rapidly become one of the few comprehensive facilities in Europe to translate discovery into improved outcomes for patients.

Turning 10 this year, UITM tightly connects healthcare professionals, VHIO researchers and clinical investigators, to identify novel predictive markers of response to anti-cancer therapies and markers of primary resistance (de novo) and secondary treatment.

Research at this Unit is driven by Elena Garralda’s Early Clinical Drug Development Group, and focuses on the development of novel agents based on tumor molecular profile as well as the optimization of therapies using combinations of new drugs with existing ones. These efforts have already contributed to the development of several targeted agents including trastuzumab, pertuzumab, cetuximab, panitumumab, ramucirumab, trifluridine/tipiracil, gefitinib, osimertinib, ceritinib, crizotinib, loratinib and everolimus, among others.

As a direct result of the Unit’s clinical studies since 2012, the FDA has approved 30 new therapies against several tumor types, which are becoming increasingly more targeted thanks to cancer discovery driven by precision medicine in oncology.

Throughout 2020 and during the COVID-19 pandemic peaks, we led 195 ongoing phase I plus Basket clinical trials. It is thanks to the dedication of Elena’s team, and all our expert professionals across VHIO’s Transversal Clinical Trials Core Services and Units, that despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, activity has been successfully maintained, and in some instances even surpassed, in order to respond to the needs of our patients.

The sharing of expertise & data exchange to guide clinical decision-making

VHIO Rodrigo Dienstmann, Principal Investigator of our Oncology Data Science (ODysSey) Group.

We continue to extend our efforts to an increasing number of patients thanks to expanded collaborations with other centers, across borders. As an example, VHIO participates in AACR’s Project GENIE: Genomics Evidence Neoplasia Information Exchange.

Catalyzing the sharing of integrated genomic and clinical datasets across multiple cancer centers, GENIE Incorporates 19 leading sites worldwide. Led by Rodrigo Dienstmann, Principal Investigator of our Oncology Data Science (ODysSey) Group, in collaboration with our Cancer Genomics Group, directed by Ana Vivancos, as well as Susana Aguilar, Project Manager of VHIO’s Molecular Prescreening Program, our Institute is the only partner from Spain.

GENIE has just released its ninth data set, which contains more than 100,000 sequenced samples from over 100,000 patients. This achievement makes GENIE one of the largest fully public cancer genomic data sets released to date.

For GENIE 9.0, VHIO collaborated with data from close to 1,000 patients across several tumor types. This collective sharing and interpretation of anonymized clinical and genomic data will help inform treatment decisions in the clinic.

Marking the launch of a web-based resource for the more precise selection of anti-cancer medicines, Cancer Core Europe’s Molecular Tumor Board Portal, an Article(15) counting on the equal contribution of lead authors David Tamborero, Karolinska Institute (Sweden), and VHIO’s Rodrigo Dienstmann, in collaboration with Cancer Core Europe - CCE investigators, describes this innovative platform that provides data-rich personalized reports with comprehensive molecular data on each patient’s tumor.

Not only does the portal automate data interpretation which helps to prevent errors associated with manual processing, it also facilitates systematic analysis based on clinical criteria developed by the experts. Opening secure access to the latest insights into tumor mutations of patients, it also allows for the discussion of individual cases with the clinical investigators across CCE’s seven sites in a truly collaborative manner.

Pioneering the tracking of cancer in liquid biopsies

Ana Vivancos, Principal Investigator of our Cancer Genomics Group.
Paolo Nuciforo, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Molecular Oncology Group.

At the preclinical and translational level, VHIO was the first academic test center to incorporate in-house BEAMING liquid biopsy RAS biomarker technology. As highlighted throughout this report, we continue to make significant progress in developing liquid biopsy technologies for more effective, less invasive monitoring of cancer in real time.

These efforts, focused on both ctDNA and tumor educated platelets (TEP), continue to advance thanks to our collaborative multidisciplinary teams in our Cancer Genomics and Molecular Oncology Groups headed by Ana Vivancos and Paolo Nuciforo, respectively.

Celebrating another VHIO first, our Institute was the first center in Europe to incorporate Guardant Health’s breakthrough liquid biopsy technology, officially announced in January 2021. This important development will enable more rapid detection of a greater number of mutations in patients’ blood samples, and a deeper, more comprehensive follow up.

Our Molecular Prescreening Program: a jewel in VHIO’s crown

Co-leaders of VHIO’s Molecular Prescreening Program: Rodrigo Dienstmann - Oncology Data Science (ODysSey) Group, Ana Vivancos - Cancer Genomics Group, Paolo Nuciforo - Molecular Oncology Group, and Elena Garralda - Research Unit for Molecular Therapy of Cancer (UITM) – CaixaResearch, and Early Clinical Drug Development Group.

Catalyzing precision medicine at VHIO, our prestigious Molecular Prescreening Program, initiated in 2010, uses emerging cancer biomarkers to optimize the selection of therapies for patients being considered for phase I clinical trials.

Representing a key driver of clinical-molecular correlative research at our Institute, this program is headed by VHIO’s Rodrigo Dienstmann under the co-leadership of Ana Vivancos, Paolo Nuciforo, and Elena Garralda. The team regularly convenes to explore existing molecular tests, developed in-house, and novel biomarkers of interest for the potential inclusion in the program.

In addition, our cancer researchers and genomicists participate in weekly tumor board meetings with VHIO’s medical oncologists to provide guidance on the interpretation of NGS results as well as discuss new markers for clinical testing in patients eligible for inclusion in our early phase clinical studies.

Reflective of our expertise in personalized prescreening, a ‘core’ paper(16) co-authored by multiple VHIO investigators across several of our groups, describes how our program has rapidly responded to the evolving landscape of molecular prescreening strategies for early clinical trials in oncology, through its dynamic model of biomarker-drug co-development.

In order to accelerate progress in precision oncology, the researchers support clinical studies with adaptive designs to enroll patients on the basis of multi-omics enrichment criteria. They also underline the importance of larger portfolios of therapies that include immunotherapeutic and antibody-drug conjugates with recruitment guided by molecular tests, as well as international collaborations and data-sharing projects, such as VHIO’s aforementioned participation in AACR’s GENIE, and Cancer Core Europe.

I couldn’t agree more!

Strengthening our research programs & growing teams

José Fernández Navarro, Principal Investigator of our newly established Bioinformatics Support Unit.

As our Institute goes from strength to strength, and further develop its research lines and projects based on defined strategic directions, we continue to expand our scientific faculty as well as scientific support units and teams.

In 2020, we welcomed José Fernández Navarro as Principal Investigator of our newly established Bioinformatics Support Unit. Joining our other Core Technologies, José’s Unit has been created to promote digital transformation, set optimal standards and best practices for the processing, analysis and visualization of omics datasets, and help to develop state-of-the-art pipelines and tools for the processing, analyses, and visualization of different omics datasets.


Gemma Sala, Director of VHIO’s Quality & Pocesses Unit.

Headed by Gemma Sala, formerly Director of VHIO’s Clinical Trials Office, VHIO’s Quality & Processes Unit was established this year to further improve quality and unify processes in clinical trials carried out at VHIO. This Unit is made up of quality, and transversal support teams including those dedicated to sample management and scheduling.


Alejandro Piris, Head of VHIO’s Scientific Coordination Area.

Accelerating progress through team science, VHIO’s multidisciplinary teams, coordinated by our Scientific Coordination Area directed by Alejandro Piris, also work together as established Task Forces that have been created based on VHIO’s strategic vision and core research priorities.

These comprehensive teams are comprised of preclinical and translational researchers, clinical investigators and medical oncologists, oncologists, pathologists, other MD disciplines, clinical research nurses, data curators as well as study coordinators, and project managers, among others.

Now covering breast, colorectal, gastroesophageal, kidney, melanoma, neuroendocrine/rectal, pancreatic, prostate, and gynecological cancers, as well as onco-imaging, our expanding number of dedicated Task Forces regularly convene to synergize efforts, boost collaborations among groups and between specialists, and continuously revise patients and samples’ circuits and ethics toward advancing cancer science and precision medicine.

Multi-center consortia & cross border collaborations of excellence

VHIO is dedicated to forming, fostering and developing strong, multi-center partnerships that combine the necessary expertise and resources to more rapidly advance cancer discovery.

In addition to our leadership of -- and participation in -- several existing international consortia and alliances, 2020 celebrated the launch of several new collaborative opportunities as follows:

The EU-funded Cancer Core Europe Consortium-Building Data Rich Clinical Trials (CCE-DART), coordinated by VHIO, is carried out in collaboration with other leading experts from within Cancer Core Europe Consortium. By harnessing and incorporating powerful cutting-edge technologies, methods and platforms, CCE DART investigators will design and develop a new generation of data rich, dynamic studies in oncology.

Building on the CCE-developed Basket of Baskets (BoB) investigator-initiated and adaptive trial, CCE-DART will further enhance BoB’s harmonized, molecular multi-tier profiling platform to more precisely match patients to novel anti-cancer medicines based on the genetic specificities of their individual tumors. In parallel, the researchers will continue to develop multiple treatments in genomically-selected populations.


The main objective of the EU-supported EURAMED rocc-n-roll project is to generate a European consensus on research needs and priorities in medical radiation applications and corresponding radiation protection to optimize the use of ionizing radiation in medicine.

Led by coordinating partner, the European Institute for Biomedical Imaging Research, Vienna (Austria), this pan-European consortium connects a total of 29 research centers, including our Institute. Taking the lead on radiation application in oncological diseases, VHIO will work with other experts in other settings including neurovascular as well as cardiovascular diseases, and explore relevant clinical scenarios, as well as provide patients’ perspectives.

VHIO researchers will analyze the needs of research in radiation application and corresponding radiation protection in oncology by identifying current gaps and future opportunities.


Coordinated by investigators at the Josep Carreras Leukemia Research Institute, Barcelona (Spain), the EU-funded Interreg POCTEFA PROTEOblood Consortium is co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund/European Social Fund, and aims to optimize, share and exploit latest technologies for the study of protein homeostasis in two prevalent subtypes of leukemia and lymphoma: acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and diffuse large b-cell lymphoma (CLBCL) in the POCTEFA region (Spain-France-Andorra).

Comprised of six other partners, including VHIO, the investigators will use modelling collections from patient derived studies to recreate the tumor microenvironment ex vivo, and apply innovative proteomic approaches associated with system biology analysis and small molecule design, to facilitate the complete characterization of proteopathies and development of more effective therapies that will then be validated through xenoinjerts.


The ERA-PerMed-supported RAD51predict Consortium, coordinated by VHIO, centers on patient stratification based on DNA repair functionality for precision cancer medicine. Consisting of five partners along with six other collaborators, this project seeks to further investigate the RAD51 in vitro diagnostic test to predict those patients who would be most likely to benefit from therapy with PARP inhibitors (PARPi).

Aimed at enabling the more precise and faster identification of patients with breastand this test has been developed to better guide the stratification of patients to clinical trials to evaluate the efficacy of PARPi across additional tumor types including prostate and endometrial cancers.


Global cancer incidence & mortality on the rise

Joaquín Arribas, Prinicipal Investigator of our Growth Factors Group, and an ICREA Research Professor.
Javier Cortés, a translational investigator at VHIO.

As this report goes to press, GLOBOCAN published its estimates of cancer incidence and mortality worldwide(17)Global cancer statistics produced by the International Agency for Research on Cancer estimated 19.3 million new cancer cases and almost 10 million cancer deaths in 2020. This article also reports that the global cancer burden is expected to be 28.4 million cases in 2040, a 47% rise from 2020.

Added to these alarming statistics, global access to cancer medicines represents a critical international issue, particularly in resource-poor settings and emerging economies. Even some of the relatively inexpensive drugs included in the World Health Organization’s Essential Medicines List are actually in chronically short supply in many countries and regions around the world. Collectively, we must steadfastly seek to resolve this stalled and appalling state of affairs.

The recently published position paper(18), Enhanced global access to cancer medicines, first authored by Javier Cortés, and co-authored by Joaquín Arribas and myself, along with key opinion leaders in oncology, explores various preventers of access to cancer medicines, with particular focus on essential cancer medicines.

The authors propose a road map of potential strategies to more effectively tackle major issues including limited access to timely diagnosis, to affordable, effective treatment, and to high-quality cancer care. Suggested directions include universal health coverage for essential cancer medicines, fairer methods for pricing cancer drugs, reducing development costs, optimizing regulation, improving reliability in the global supply chain, and improving schedules for cancer therapy.

Glaringly, there is much work to be done.

It is clear that while progress in advancing personalized cancer research, treatment and care should be applauded, we cannot accept complacency. As cancer researchers, clinical investigators and medical oncologists, we are privileged to help promote and guide more effective prevention strategies as well as national cancer planning. Working alongside all stakeholders in oncology, I believe that we can act together to alleviate the current and future global burden of cancer, which now weighs heavier than ever before.

An estimated 30-50% of all cancers can be prevented. Cancer control clearly begins with disease prevention through educational programs, well informed strategies, targeted interventions, as well as policies and planning tailored Nationally and regionally.

Aimed at strengthening cancer control and prevention, the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) and World Health Organization’s International Agency for Cancer Research on Cancer (IACR), co-launched the World Cancer Report’s e-learning platform in 2020.

This resource, co-developed by ESMO and IACR, promotes and enhances cancer prevention strategies, policies and actions globally, by incorporating especially created materials as well as learning opportunities and events for scientists, policy makers, students, early career researchers and citizens across borders.

Public engagement and outreach programs aimed at increasing our citizens’ awareness about the importance of cancer research as well as disease prevention, also play a central role in more effective cancer control.

At VHIO, we support and organize activities to increase public interest in cancer research and promote the important advances reported by our scientists and clinical investigators.

These efforts are aimed at patients, youngsters and non-specialized adult audiences to enrich scientific culture as well as promote science as a stimulating career path for young people – the future of our research. Importantly, some of these initiatives have resulted in considerable funding for research at VHIO.

We will continue to identify, lead and participate in all these precious initiatives and launch new ones based on identified opportunities.

The passing of a visionary in cancer research and clinical oncology: José Baselga, 1959-2021

José Baselga, MD, PhD: a global trailblazer in oncology, pioneer of translational cancer research, and VHIO’s Founding Director.

The international scientific cancer community, along with all other stakeholders in oncology, continues to mourn the passing of a visionary scientific leader and trailblazer, José Baselga.

José, who passed away at the age of 61 on 21 March, 2021, was an icon in medical oncology, a pioneer of translational cancer research, who made essential contributions to improving outcomes for cancer patients worldwide. By integrating patient care within a multidisciplinary program connecting basic, clinical and translational science, where optimal patient care is conciliated with innovative translational research, he spearhead efforts to rapidly transform cancer discovery into clinical benefits for patients.

This unique research model emboldened him to create the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO), which he founded in 2006 as its first Director. From the outset, José had one guiding principle for VHIO. Namely, to seamlessly bridge preclinical and clinical research in order to foster a continuous virtuous cycle of knowledge from bench to bedside and back. This translational approach continues to be at the very core of VHIO’s philosophy, which I, as VHIO’s Director, passionately pursue alongside our multidisciplinary teams.

While José’s passing represents an unfillable void in cancer research, treatment and care, he leaves a tremendous legacy for the scientific community. This gift will continue to inspire present and future generations of cancer researchers and clinical investigators.

We’ll miss him enormously. Please do carry on reading my personal tribute to José which leads off this year’s report.

The Last Word

While 2020 has been a year unlike any other, we will continue to transform the many challenges in cancer research and clinical oncology into opportunities for those who matter most; our cherished patients.

As VHIO's Director, I am honored and privileged to lead and work with our many research talents and dedicated healthcare professionals in oncology. Without our multidisciplinary and translational teams, cross-border collaborations and partnerships, and the passion and drive that unite us all in our ambition to solve cancer sooner, our Institute would cease to exist.

That same sustained devotion and belief is also shared in equal measure by our wonderful institutional supporters – the Generalitat de Catalunya, Fundació Privada CELLEX, Fundación FERO, ”la Caixa” Foundation, and the Fundación BBVA, as well as VHIO's many other funding entities, agencies, supporters, and individuals. They all share the same intense desire as we do: to reduce the devastating burden that this disease has on society.

I ended last year’s report Foreword by expressing my belief that we will overcome this global pandemic and progress to even bigger success in our efforts to combat cancer. Illustrated by the many research highlights and developments chaptered in the pages that follow, I am confident that we will continue to do so.

We can, and will, do even better.

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JOSÉ "PEPE" Baselga, MD, PhD: In Memoriam (1959-2021)

A personal TRIBUTE* by VHIO's Director, Josep Tabernero

José Baselga, MD, PhD: a visionary leader in translational science and precision oncology, and VHIO’s Founding Director.

José Baselga, a Barcelona-born and internationally acclaimed medical oncologist, very sadly passed away at the age of 61 on 21 March, 2021. Sending shock waves across our entire cancer community and beyond, he died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a rapidly progressing, neurodegenerative disease.

With his death, a guiding light in oncology and indeed society has been extinguished. We have lost a visionary, innovator, and eminent trailblazer in translational cancer research and precision medicine. José was an extraordinary person, impassioned by everything he did, whose incomparable devotion to his profession, patients, research and clinical colleagues, and mentorship were at his very core -- part of his fabric, his DNA. As was his love for his family and close friends whom he absolutely cherished.

I first met José Baselga when I was a student completing my finals in Medicine and he was a resident in Internal Medicine at the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital (HUVH), here in Barcelona. From that very first moment, I felt his passion for medical research and his desire to understand the biological and molecular makeup of disease (long before the fundamental insights into the human genome came to light). I believe that this inherent curiosity and belief in exploring unchartered ground set him apart from many other research talents of his epoque. A binding thread in the tapestry of his illustrious career.

Back in 1990: at MSKCC, where José completed his oncology training under the mentorship of John Mendelsohn and Larry Norton, for his laboratory investigations and clinical explorations, respectively.

He subsequently left for the United States to complete his residency in Internal Medicine, and later, in Medical Oncology at the prestigious Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York, where he was appointed as an Associate Physician. In 1996, José returned to Barcelona to create a multidisciplinary Oncology Department at HUVH, integrating and connecting all professionals caring for cancer patients, and at the same time, implementing his new vision for cancer research.

He swiftly set up a combined preclinical, clinical and translational program in oncology with one clear objective: to accelerate cancer discovery and apply the insights generated at the bench and transform them into clinical benefits for patients at the bedside as quickly as possible.

José Baselga, VHIO’s founder and first director, alongside our Director, Josep Tabernero: working in tandem to deliver on personalized medicine in oncology by championing a purely translational, multidisciplinary cancer research model.

I was very fortunate to join José’s team back in 1997. Emboldened by the successes of his purely translational and multidisciplinary approach to research, he created the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO), as our Institute’s founder and first director. Undoubtedly, his dual set up of the Oncology Department at HUVH and VHIO transformed patient care and stimulated cutting-edge cancer research. His leadership put Barcelona and Vall d’Hebron on the map of the best of the best centers in oncological research, and among the most prestigious centers across the globe.

His vision, coupled with his steadfast determination, succeeded in marrying excellence in clinical practice driven by multidisciplinary teams in oncology, with applied research. So much so, his inspirational model was rapidly adopted by many other hospitals in Spain and around the world.

2008: José with his clinical breast cancer research team in front of the HUVH-VHIO Breast Cancer Center.

Throughout his career, so many individuals, bodies, consortia of excellence, and scientific societies rightly sought -- and counted on -- his scientific expertise, leadership and mentorship. To mention just two examples, José served as President of the European Society for Medical Oncology – ESMO (2008-2009), and the American Association for Cancer Research – AACR (2015-2016). For both, he made fundamental changes by turning challenges into opportunities to help overturn obstacles hampering efforts in more effectively combating cancer, with the interest of patients at the heart of every action.

José was appointed to direct the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in 2010, and then joined MSKCC in 2013 as its Physician-in-Chief and Chief Medical Officer until 2018. Over the past two years, he served as AstraZeneca’s Executive Vice President Oncology R&D, and member of its Senior Executive Committee.

In every leadership position that José occupied with equal vigor, zeal and driving spirit, his passion for the constant pursuit of knowledge, coupled with his ability to set up cohesive multidisciplinary teams of professionals, was breathtaking. His compassion and care for cancer patients was also incredible. He simply gave, unconditionally. With a second-to-none bedside manner and natural ability to communicate on a very human level, he gave patients the courage to fight their disease.

With a natural charisma and charm, José also knew how to get the right people, at the right time, together in the same room. Countless consortia of excellence, powerful partnerships, and groundbreaking results have been driven by his extraordinary ability to work together, across borders, in order to advance the oncology field at a rate of knots. He could not accept, or tolerate, time wasting. Sometimes, unlikely alliances at the time, were born to go on to achieve exceptional results.

José was also hugely dedicated to building great things, the careers of promising young talents in cancer research and oncology. This was apparent from very early on.

At the national level, he founded the FERO Foundation, one of VHIO’s cherished patrons, to support translational research of excellence. He also nurtured and forged the essential collaborations with our other patrons and institutional supporters; Generalitat de Catalunya, Fundación Privada CELLEX, ”la Caixa” Foundation, and the Fundación BBVA. Without which, VHIO would cease to exist -as well as its Units, leading Institutional Programs, as well as many facilities across Vall d'Hebron- would simply not exist**.

My relationship with José was always exceptional -- as my mentor, and as a much-loved friend. The same rigor and tenacity that he demanded from himself, he expected (respectfully) from others. He could be demanding at times, but this was simply a manifestation of his heartfelt determination to speed cancer research, treatment and patient care. His enthusiasm shone through – always, in everything he did. He believed that collectively we can practically eradicate cancer as long we join together with shared determination and collaborative spirit.

I consider myself hugely privileged to have witnessed first-hand just how José’s remarkable vision in advancing precision medicine in oncology has spurred the development and approval of more potent, personalized therapies that have benefited numerous cancer patients . Many of those medicines might not have made it through the drug development and clinical trial processes without José’s steady hand at the wheel. One of the most illustrative examples is perhaps trastuzumab (Herceptin), which has helped save countless lives of patients suffering from breast cancer.

His long-standing research interests centered on the development of targeted therapies against breast cancer and studying strategies to overcome mechanisms of resistance. Among others, José conducted the initial clinical trials with the monoclonal antibodies cetuximab and trastuzumab and led the clinical development of several new agents including pertuzumab, everolimus and PI3K inhibitors. His main focus in the laboratory and in the clinic surrounded novel anti-HER2 agents, and the identification of mechanisms of resistance to anti-HER2 agents and therapeutic approaches to target the PI3K pathway. He also directed several neo-adjuvant trials in breast cancer and was at the forefront of developing biomarker-based early and translational clinical trials.

In 2017: the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) honored José Baselga with the ESMO Lifetime Achievement Award for his crucial role in breast cancer drug development, as well as his pivotal laboratory and clinical studies that subsequently the approval of trastuzumab, pertuzumab and everolimus, among many others. Photo courtesy of ESMO.

José’s crucial role in breast cancer drug development in particular has been recognized through numerous prestigious awards and prizes. These accolades include the AACR Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, Fellow of the AACR Academy, the Gold Medal, Queen Sofia Spanish Institute, New York; Joseph B. Martin Award, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston; Elected Member, National Academy of Medicine; XXVIII Catalonia International Prize; Dr. Trueta Medal; Rey Jaime I Prize; ESMO Award, and the ESMO Lifetime Achievement Award.

José, on behalf of cancer patients and all cancer professionals who had the honor to know and work with you, I thank you for the incredible legacy that you have left us. We also salute you for your enthusiasm and passion, each and every day. We strive to honor your legacy by applying the same dedication and fight in beating cancer.

You will never be forgotten.

VHIO in 2020:
A year of challenges, opportunities and hope.

Championed by VHIO’s Director, Josep Tabernero, our Principal Investigators as well as the Heads of our Transversal Clinical Trials Core Services, Units and Programs, spearhead efforts aimed at solving cancer sooner. They lead their respective groups and teams to turn obstacles in oncology into opportunities, and work tirelessly to resolve current and future challenges in combating this hugely complex disease.

Throughout 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked its havoc at societal level, affecting all aspects of humanity everywhere. It has undoubtedly had a tremendous effect on how the cancer research community has had to re-think interaction, adapt infrastructures and approaches to ensure that progress against cancer advances, no matter how disruptive this past year has been.

To mark this terribly challenging year, we invited each of our Group and Unit leaders to reflect on 2020, and submit a noun, adjective, concept, or priority area, which they felt was particularly relevant- though not exclusive- to this past year.

Introducing VHIO

Who we are and what we do

VHIO's Organigram 2020

In order to translate cancer discovery into real benefits for an increasing number patients, VHIO adopts a purely translational, multidisciplinary research model. Organized into three main programs – Preclinical & Translational, Clinical, and Core Technologies, our research focuses on understanding the fundamental biology of human cancer, from cellular and molecular biology and genetics through to therapeutics.

Our optimal organizational structure allows VHIO talents to continue to both anticipate and tackle the many unresolved questions in ultimately outsmarting the multifaceted, heterogeneous and complex disease that is cancer:

VHIO in 2020:
A year of challenges, opportunities and hope

Our Director, Josep Tabernero: welcoming all stakeholders in oncology to discover more about who we are, what we do, and how we do it. In front of our CELLEX building – the home and heart of the Vall d'Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO).

Our public patron, the Government of Catalonia (Generalitat de Catalunya) – together with the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital (HUVH) – represented by its Departments of Health (Departament de Salut), and Industry and Knowledge (Departament de Empresa I Coneixement), has from the very outset been a dedicated supporter of VHIO’s cancer science and medicine.

As a devoted ambassador of VHIO and our various research programs and projects, it has been institutionally and financially supporting us throughout our first decade and now, beyond, with the Catalan Minister of Health as the President of our Board of Trustees.

At ‘home’ VHIO’s translational and multidisciplinary approach to cancer research is greatly facilitated through the connectivity and tremendous collaboration we have with the entire spectrum of oncology professionals at HUVH, the Vall d’Hebron Barcelona Hospital Campus, and the rest of the Catalan Public Health System.

The Catalan Department of Health has played an essential role in integrating VHIO’s research activity into the Catalan Health System, through the Catalan Institute of Health (ICS), representing a successful example of how the public and private sectors can work closely together for the benefit of science, patients and society.

As an active member of the CERCA Institute of Research Centers of Catalonia (Institució CERCA–Centres de Recerca de Catalunya), this collaboration affords us access to the Catalan Research System and the fiscal and legal benefits that this represents. The financial support it has provided has consequently contributed majorly to VHIO’s structural overheads, allowing us to center our efforts on our core research activities. Additionally our groups also receive funding from various calls promoted and supported by the Generalitat de Catalunya.

As an example in 2020, Joan Seoane, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Gene Expression & Cancer Group, received funding from the call, Research projects and innovation for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19, issued by its Department of Health, for his research focused on MSC1, an anti-LIF therapeutic antibody, as a potential treatment for COVID-19.

At the close of 2020, our Director, Josep Tabernero, was awarded as recipient of a Catalan Institute of Health (ICS) National Research Award in recognition of his illustrious career and outstanding contributions made to research against cancer.


It is thanks to one of our private patrons, the Fundació Privada CELLEX (CELLEX Foundation), that we have been able to build new facilities that have subsequently spurred our efforts aimed at advancing precision oncology and providing optimal patient treatment and care.

As a first example, it is thanks to this Foundation that the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital’s Oncology Department’s Oncology Day Hospital and Outpatients Facility opened its adjoining doors in 2008, with a subsequent and final phase of reforms in 2012. This carefully planned expansion and integration of various units and services, resulted in uniting all specialties and disciplines involved in the treatment and care of our patients in the same place and in so doing, now promotes the purely translational and multidisciplinary model for which VHIO is famed.

CELLEX Building: the home, heart and hub of translational research at VHIO.

CELLEX also financed the construction and infrastructures of our state-of-the-art building – the CELLEX Center – that was completed back in 2015. Marking a new VHIO chapter, our premises provided the necessary space and amenities to expand our research activities and further foster our multidisciplinary connectivity and exchange by bringing all VHIO research teams together under the same roof.

Providing the valuable space through which to grow, the CELLEX Center has not only further enhanced collaborations and accelerated our dedicated efforts to combat cancer, it has also allowed us to expand our groups in order to pursue new emerging research areas as well as fortify our research structure.

As importantly, thanks to CELLEX, our cutting-edge Animal Facility that we share with other colleagues across the Vall d'Hebron Barcelona Hospital Campus, enables our investigators to further develop and finely-tune our predictive cancer models. Incorporating the latest platforms and technologies, this facility has enabled us to establish VHIO as a European reference in cancer modelling.


Support received from the Fundación FERO (FERO Foundation), has, from the very beginning, enabled science of excellence at VHIO as well as promoted the careers of up-and-coming talents in oncology through its annual grants and fellowships.

Concerning the former, the labs of Josep Villanueva, PI of our Tumor Biomarkers Group, Laura Soucek, PI of VHIO’s Mouse Models of Cancer Therapies Group and ICREA Research Professor, Violeta Serra, PI of VHIO’s Experimental Therapeutics Group, Joaquín Arribas, PI of our Growth Factors Group, also an ICREA Research Professor, Sandra Peiró, PI of our Chromatin Dynamics Group, and most recently, César Serrano, PI of our Sarcoma and Translational Research Group, have been able to grow their groups and advance their pioneering research lines thanks to FERO.

FERO has also contributed to the expansion of our facilities. As an example, the Foundation was a sponsor of our Breast Cancer Center Endavant i de Cara, along with a personal donation received from Maria Angels Sanahuja. Funding received from FERO also enables us to continue to develop the liquid biopsy of cancer and thus advance research into the more effective and less invasive tracking of disease. These investigations, spearhead by VHIO’s Director, Josep Tabernero, are carried out within the scope of VHIO-FERO’s Institutional Advanced Molecular Diagnostics Program (DIAMAV), which also fuels VHIO’s Molecular Prescreening Program.

Regarding its Annual Awards for Translational Research, a total of thirteen of our research scientists have been prized to date: Laura Soucek (2011), Héctor G. Palmer (2012), Ibrahim Yasir – formerly an investigator of VHIO’s Experimental Therapeutics Group directed by Violeta Serra (2013), César Serrano (2015), Beatriz Morancho (2016), María Abad (2017), Alena Gros (2018), Joaquin Mateo, Violeta Serra and Judith Balmaña through the first FERO-ghd funded project (2019), Raquel Perez-López, and Cristina Saura and Miriam Sansó – the second annual FERO-ghd award (2020).

More specifically, Raquel Perez-López, PI of VHIO’s Radiomics Group, was awarded for the project entitled, Unraveling the tumor immunotherapy with deep-learning based radiogenomics. This funding will enable her team to apply deep-learning models to medical imaging to achieve a greater understanding of tumor immunophenotypes.

Cristina Saura, PI of our Breast Cancer Group, and Miriam Sansó, Post-Doctoral Fellow of VHIO’s Cancer Genomics Group directed by Ana Vivancos, received the second joint FERO-ghd annual grant for pioneering research into Circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) in breast milk for the early detection of pregnancy-associated breast cancer.


Thanks to the support received from the ”la Caixa” Foundation, VHIO’s Research Unit for Molecular Therapies of Cancer (UITM) – CaixaResearch, opened its doors in 2010 to pioneer early drug discovery and clinical studies tailored to the specificities of patients. Research at this Unit has contributed to the development of several tumor cell targeted agents including trastuzumab, pertuzumab, cetuximab, panitumumab, ramucirumab, trifluridine/tipiracil, gefitinib, osimertinib, ceritinib, crizotinib, loratinib and everolimus, among others. Current focus also centers on accelerating and advancing immunotherapies including atezolizumab, nivolumab and pembrolizumab.

The UITM, under the direction of Elena Garralda, PI of our Early Clinical Drug Development Group, has subsequently established itself as a leading reference in developing novel therapies based on the molecular profile of each tumor and optimize treatment strategies using combinations of new agents with already existing ones. It also pioneers the design and development of novel, adaptive clinical studies including the so-called basket, multi-modular and umbrella trials. Elena’s team is dedicated to studying the effectiveness of treatment approaches and anti-cancer studies by allowing for the ‘real time’ and necessary adaptation in tune with the rapid pace of cancer discovery - especially in the academic setting.

By advancing clinical trial study design in the current era of precision medicine, VHIO continues to make important contributions to tackling the current challenges in oncology including the globalization of clinical research, and the implementation of emerging health technologies in the clinical setting. One major development in these directions, was the launch of the EU-funded, multi-site project, Cancer Core Europe Building Data Rich Clinical Trials (CCE-DART), which is coordinated by Elena Garralda.

In addition to various grants supporting several VHIO groups and projects, the Foundation also fuels one of VHIO’s three major institutional programs. Building on the successes of the two previous VHIO-”la Caixa” Institutional 3-year Programs, at the beginning of 2020, we launched a new 4-year VHIO-”la Caixa” program: CaixaResearch Advanced Oncology Research Program (2020-2023). Marking the UITM turning ten this year, this support will further spur our purely translational and multidisciplinary teams to develop more potent and precise anti-cancer medicines, fortify existing research lines as well as initiate new projects to lead frontier research in some of the most relevant and rising focus fields in precision oncology. For more information please refer to our Institutional Programs.

Also thanks to the ”la Caixa” Foundation, our Clinical Research Oncology Pharmacy Unit’s new home was completed in 2019. Providing the much needed additional space and equipped with the very latest technologies, the Molecular Therapy of Cancer (UITM) – CaixaResearch Clinical Research Onco-Hematology Unit enables Maria Queralt Gorgas’ team to provide even higher quality pharmaceutical care and services, as well as continue to meet all regulatory requirements.

Finally, through our VHIO – CaixaResearch’s Scientific Seminars Series, launched last year, we continue to welcome internationally renowned researchers and clinical investigators to VHIO to share, discuss and debate latest insights, discovery and next directions in oncology with our students, postdocs and senior faculty from our preclinical, translational and clinical research groups. Naturally, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these expert sessions were mostly hosted and conducted virtually.


Also driving programs to spur VHIO’s avant-garde translational research in precision oncology, the Fundación BBVA (BBVA Foundation), financed our Tumor Biomarkers Research Program back in 2011. This five-year major framework agreement fueled collaborative science centering on the development of personalized therapies for cancer patients through biomarker research.

Building on the successes of this first program, our second BBVA-VHIO Institutional Program: the BBVA Comprehensive Program of Cancer Immunotherapy & Immunology (CAIMI), represents an important forward step in advancing agents that inhibit checkpoint regulation of the immune system, better understanding mechanisms of resistance and response to these therapies, and prioritizing the early development of those drugs showing most promise. It also supports various research lines across other VHIO groups.

Under the leadership of VHIO’s Director, Josep Tabernero, these research efforts are headed by Alena Gros and Elena Garralda, PIs of our Tumor Immunology & Immunotherapy, and Early Clinical Drug Development Groups, respectively, in collaboration with VHIO’s in-house Molecular Prescreening Program of excellence, (please also see: FERO Foundation’s Advanced Molecular Diagnostics Program - DIAMAV).

Main objectives of the BBVA-Foundation’s CIAMI program include achieving a deeper understanding of naturally occurring T-cell response to cancer and establishing novel ways to exploit these anticancer responses to develop more effective, powerful and personalized immune-based strategies, approaches and therapies to combat this disease; across several tumor types.

Various pioneering translational projects linked to the early clinical development phases of immunotherapy are underway. Focus areas include the characterization of hyperprogressive disease with immunotherapy to advance insights into this phenomenon, as well as establishing a radiomic signature to predict response to immunotherapy; carried out in collaboration with Raquel Perez-Lopez, PI of our Radiomics Group.

Importantly, this year, Alena Gros and Elena Garralda’s teams have worked together to finalize the clinical grade validations of tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) expansion for the treatment of certain cancer patients at the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital (HUVH).

Most recently, Alena’s group filed an investigational new drug (IND) application to the AEMPS Spanish Regulatory Agency towards treating patients with metastatic epithelial or immunotherapy refractory tumors with neoantigen-reactive TILs. By enriching for neoantigen-reactive lymphocytes, the aim is to fortify the efficacy of TIL therapy in epithelial cancers.


VHIO's translation toward precision oncology: a little more on how we did it in 2020

VHIO's multidisciplinary and translational model: the seamless, unrestricted flow of discovery in oncology.

Located within the Vall d’Hebron Barcelona Hospital Campus, our researchers closely collaborate and interact with Vall d’Hebron University Hospital (HUVH) physician-scientists. Translational science and clinical research are therefore tightly connected which promotes superb interaction and teamwork which, in turn, accelerates the bench-bedside-bed cycle of knowledge.

This privileged environment affords VHIO direct access to patients as well as the entire spectrum of oncology professionals who care for them, and a second-to-none appreciation of how cancer science can translate into more powerful, targeted treatments and better practice for the care of patients.

VHIO’s pioneering model and programs, coupled with its belief in combining strengths through cross-border collaborations, continue to spur advances in reversing cancer resistance, halting metastatic spread, and more effectively treating even the most ‘undruggable’ tumor types.


Areas of cancer research at VHIO: a snapshot

  • Preclinical humanized models (PDXs – Avatars – and Organoids).
  • Mechanisms of sensitivity, and primary and acquired resistance.
  • Molecular and clinical Big Data to characterize subtypes of diseases.
  • Early drug development.
  • Clinical trials with innovative agents (phase I & II) and first-in-human studies.

The design, development & application of powerful platforms and empowering technologies

VHIO’s Molecular Prescreening team (left to right): Paolo Nuciforo, Ana Vivancos, Elena Garralda, Rodrigo Dienstmann, Susana Aguilar and Jenifer Gonzalez. Disclaimer: this team picture was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the core of VHIO’s research activities are our suite of cutting-edge core technology platforms which allow our expert teams to apply next-generation whole-genome sequencing for precision oncology as well as develop and improve existing applications to accelerate results.

By sequencing panels of genes or entire genomes in cancer patients, we are now better equipped than ever before to identify specific molecular risk factors and better predict the potential efficacy of specific agents matched to the specificities of individual patients.

VHIO’s Cancer Genomics Group, headed by Ana Vivancos, serves as a Core Technology laboratory and provides cutting-edge applications in cancer genomics through state-of-the-art technologies and the development of novel, fully validated tests that are used in the clinical research setting (Molecular Prescreening Program – see below). Her lab is equipped with an n-Counter (Nanostring) platform, two digital PCR platforms (BEAMing Sysmex and ddPCR, BIO-RAD), and three NextGen Sequencers; MiSeq, NextSeq and HiSeq2500, Illumina.

VHIO's Molecular Prescreening Program, which is powered by one of our Institutional Programs, FERO Foundation’s Institutional Advanced Molecular Diagnostics Program (DIAMAV), catalyzes precision medicine at VHIO. Over the past decade, molecular prescreening at VHIO has provided access to advanced molecular diagnostics to more than 5,000 cancer patients, and is critical in matching targeted therapeutic approaches with hundreds of clinical trial opportunities.
This program also counts on the expertise provided through our Research Unit for Molecular Therapy of Cancer (UITM) – CaixaResearch, funded by the ”la Caixa” Foundation, directed by Elena Garralda. Representing a key driver of clinical-molecular correlative research at our Institute, this program is headed by VHIO’s Rodrigo Dienstmann under the co-leadership of Ana Vivancos, Paolo Nuciforo, and Elena Garralda. The team regularly convenes to explore existing molecular tests, developed in-house, and novel biomarkers of interest for the potential inclusion in the program. In addition, our cancer researchers and genomicists participate in weekly tumor board meetings with VHIO’s medical oncologists to provide guidance on the interpretation of NGS results as well as discuss new markers for clinical testing in patients eligible for inclusion in our early phase clinical studies performed at UITM-CaixaResearch.
These expert teams collaborate together to perform molecular profiling in up to 1500 patients each year, establishing VHIO as one of the few centers in Europe to run such a comprehensive program.
We continue to extend our efforts to an increasing number of patients through collaborations with other centers, across borders. As an example, VHIO participates in AACR’s Project Genomics Evidence Neoplasia Information Exchange (GENIE).


Launched by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) back in 2015, the AACR Project Genomics Evidence Neoplasia Information Exchange (GENIE) catalyzes the sharing of integrated genomic and clinical datasets across multiple cancer centers worldwide.

Incorporating 19 leading sites across the globe, VHIO is the only participant from Spain. This major international collaboration also counts on the expertise of its technical partners, SAGE and cBioPortal, that serve as secure data repository and visualization portals.

The first set of cancer genomic data aggregated through AACR’s GENIE was available to the global oncology community in January 2017. The ninth data set, GENIE 9.0-public, was recently released (February 2021), with the registry now containing over 100,000 sequenced samples from over 100, 000 patients. This achievement makes GENIE one of the largest fully public cancer genomic data sets released to date.

Specifically, GENIE’s registry now contains genomic information from almost 17,000 non-small cell lung carcinomas, and nearly 12,000 breast and over 11,000 colorectal cancers. Fulfilling an unmet need by providing the necessary statistical power to better guide clinical decision-making, particularly in the case of rare cancers and rare variants in common cancers, GENIE empowers novel clinical and translational research.

At the preclinical and translational level, VHIO was the first academic test center to incorporate in-house BEAMING liquid biopsy RAS biomarker technology (2015). As highlighted throughout the pages of this Scientific Report, we continue to make significant progress in validating and developing liquid biopsy technologies for the more effective, less invasive monitoring of cancer in real time. These efforts, focused on both ctDNA and tumor educated platelets (TEP), continue to advance thanks to our multidisciplinary teams in collaboration with two VHIO Core Facilities; our Cancer Genomics and Molecular Oncology Groups headed by Ana Vivancos and Paolo Nuciforo, respectively.

Our Institute was recently the first center in Europe to incorporate Guardant Health’s liquid biopsy technology, officially announced in January 2021. This important development will enable the more rapid detection of a greater number of mutations in patients’ blood samples, and a deeper, more comprehensive follow-up.



VHIO’s Research Unit for Molecular Therapy of Cancer (UITM) – CaixaResearch turned 10 in 2020

VHIO’s Research Unit for Molecular Therapy of Cancer (UITM) –CaixaResearch.

Thanks to the support we receive from one of our Institutional Supporters and Patrons, ”la Caixa” Foundation, VHIO continues to establish itself as a leading reference in progressing drug development and targeted therapies against cancer. Our Research Unit for Molecular Therapy of Cancer (UITM) – CaixaResearch, founded back in 2010, has rapidly become one of the few comprehensive facilities in Europe to translate latest discovery into improved outcomes for patients, as rapidly as possible.

Led by our Director, Josep Tabernero, and headed by Elena Garralda, it has been able to do so not only through the bridging and tight connectivity between health care professionals, VHIO researchers and clinical investigators, but also by identifying novel predictive markers of response to anti-cancer therapies and markers of primary resistance (de novo) and secondary treatment. Research at this Unit is driven by Elena’s Early Clinical Drug Development Group, and focuses on the development of novel agents based on the molecular profile of each tumor as well as the optimization of therapies using combinations of new drugs with existing ones.

We have contributed to the development of several tumor cell targeted agents including trastuzumab, pertuzumab, cetuximab, panitumumab, ramucirumab, trifluridine/tipiracil, gefitinib, osimertinib, ceritinib, crizotinib, loratinib and everolimus, among others. As a direct result of the clinical studies at our Unit, the FDA has approved 30 new therapies against several tumor types, which are becoming increasingly more targeted thanks to cancer discovery driven by precision medicine in oncology.

UITM-CaixaResearch facilities as well as VHIO-”la Caixa” Foundation’s Institutional Program, enable VHIO to continuously expand its portfolio of early phase studies including complex trials such as basket studies, as well as spearhead next generation clinical trials in oncology. We are delighted to announce that 2020 celebrated the launch of our Advanced Oncology Research Program – CaixaResearch (2020-2023). Building on the successes of the two previous Institutional 3-year Programs, this new program will continue to spur our dedicated efforts aimed at solving cancer sooner.

Throughout 2020 and during the COVID-19 pandemic peaks, this Unit led 195 ongoing phase I plus Basket clinical trials. It is thanks to the dedication of Elena’s Group, and all our expert professionals across VHIO’s Transversal Clinical Trials Core Services and Units, that despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, activity was successfully maintained, and in some instances even surpassed, in order to respond to the needs of our patients.

Specifically, VHIO’s clinical teams had to swiftly establish adaptive circuits and approaches to ensure the optimal running of clinical studies, while delivering –as always- optimal patient care. Newly introduced measures in response to the pandemic, whenever and wherever possible, included remote monitoring as well as dispensation of medication for certain patients receiving orally administered therapies, and telematics clinical consultations.

This year, 521 patients were enrolled in our phase I and basket studies. Our Clinical Trials Office, directed by Marta Beltran, and also located in the patient environment of the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital (HUVH), coordinates a large portfolio of Phase I, Baskets, Phase II & III clinical trials. In 2020 the number of patients included in these trials totaled at 1084 across 474 actively recruiting trials. In addition, 156 patients were enrolled in across a total of 34 post authorization and rollover studies.

Current research also centers on accelerating and advancing immunotherapies including atezolizumab, nivolumab and pembrolizumab. Concerning novel immunotherapeutics, we spearhead the early drug development of these agents and cell signaling. Specifically, we focus on second generation immunotherapies, including new cytokines, bispecifics, intratumoral agents, immunomodulatory agents and immune checkpoint inhibitors and combinations, as well as translational research in immuno-oncology in collaboration with several VHIO groups, including Alena Gros’ Tumor Immunology & Immunotherapy Group.

Illustrative of our efforts aimed at pioneering novel clinical trial design in the current era of precision oncology, the EU-funded Cancer Core Europe Consortium-Building Data Rich Clinical Trials (CCE-DART) project launched in 2020. Incorporating experts from the seven European comprehensive cancer centers belonging to the Cancer Core Europe (CCE) Consortium, along with an additional four non-CCE partners, CCE-DART is coordinated by VHIO’s Elena Garralda and carried out in collaboration with other leading experts from within Cancer Core Europe Consortium.

Building on the CCE-developed Basket of Baskets (BoB) investigator-initiated and adaptive trial which launched in 2018, which was also designed and co-developed by Elena’s team at the UITM-CaixaResearch, CCE-DART will further enhance BoB’s harmonized, molecular multi-tier profiling platform to more precisely match patients to novel anti-cancer medicines based on the genetic specificities of their individual tumors. In parallel, the researchers will continue to develop multiple treatments in genomically-selected populations.

By harnessing and incorporating powerful cutting-edge technologies, methods and platforms, CCE-DART investigators will spur the design, development, and ringing in of a new generation of data rich, dynamic studies in oncology.


Importantly, research conducted at VHIO’s Research Unit for Molecular Therapy of Cancer (UITM) – CaixaResearch is also spurred through our two other Institutional Programs: FERO Foundation’s Advanced Molecular Diagnostics Program (DIAMAV), and BBVA’s Comprehensive Program of Cancer Immunotherapy & Immunology (CAIMI).


VHIO's direct access to cancer patients: at the center of our purely translational research model

The Vall d'Hebron University Hospital (HUVH): the largest hospital complex in Catalonia and one of the most important in Spain.

Located within the Vall d’Hebron Barcelona Hospital Campus, which also incorporates a trio of research institutes of international reference; Vall d’Hebron Institute of Research (VHIR), CEMCAT – Multiple Sclerosis Center of Catalonia, and VHIO, the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital (HUVH), affords VHIO direct access to patients as well as the entire spectrum of oncology professionals who care for them.

Organized into multidisciplinary and integrated teams, our researchers closely collaborate and interact with Vall d’Hebron physician-scientists. Translational science and clinical research are therefore tightly connected, accelerating the bench-bedside-bed cycle of knowledge.


Championing translational and transformative clinical research against cancer

The Fundació Privada CELLEX (CELLEX Foundation), one of VHIO’s Patrons and Institutional Supporters, financed the construction of our state-of-the-art building – the CELLEX CENTER – that was completed back in 2015. Also supporting our infrastructures, CELLEX enables us to advance translational cancer science through our purely multidisciplinary research model and interconnected facilities and platforms.

In 2020, 387 scientific articles were published by VHIO researchers as corresponding/senior or co-authors.

To view each Principal Investigator’s paper pick (maximum of four selected pages published in 2020), please refer to their corresponding group pages, as well as our Director’s highlighted papers that made the headlines in 2020, please see Josep Tabernero’s Foreword.


VHIO’s trio of institutional programs: delivering on the promise of precision medicine and potentiating novel therapies and treatment strategies

VHIO can and will only deliver on its goal of accelerating the pace in advancing personalized and targeted therapies thanks to the generous support we receive from our Patrons and Institutional Supporters: the Generalitat de Catalunya, Fundació Privada CELLEX, FERO Fundación de Investigación Oncológica, ”la Caixa” Foundation, and the Fundación BBVA. In addition to highlighting each of their myriad contributions our three Institutional Research Programs are as follows:

Advanced Molecular Diagnostics Program (DIAMAV). This program seeks to advance molecular profiling in patients in order to more effectively match personalized treatment strategies based on the genomic or pathologic profile of each individual patient and the molecular makeup of their disease. It aims to identify specific molecular risk factors better predict the potential efficacy of specific agents tailored to each particular tumor, further advance insights into the more effective and less invasive tracking of disease by liquid biopsy, and develop cancer diagnostics for the early detection of disease.


CaixaResearch Advanced Oncology Research Program.Building on the successes of the two previous VHIO-”la Caixa” Institutional 3-year Programs, this new CaixaResearch program (2020-2023) launched this year will further spur the development of more potent and precise anti-cancer medicines, fortify existing research lines as well as initiate new projects to lead frontier research in some of the most relevant and rising focus fields in precision oncology; those areas showing particular promise in solving the multiple questions that stand in the way of more effectively combating cancer.


Comprehensive Program of Cancer Immunotherapy & Immunology (CAIMI). Considering the achievements of the very first VHIO-BBVA Foundation Program on Tumor Biomarkers Research, the BBVA Foundation officially launched this second program in 2018 to advance agents that inhibit checkpoint regulation of the immune system, achieve a deeper understanding of mechanisms of resistance and response to these therapies, and prioritize the early development of those agents showing most promise.


In addition to the support received through our Institutional Supporters, VHIO’s research and activities are also funded by private institutions, companies, associations, societies, and individual donors.

We also continue to secure essential funding through several International and National Competitive Grants. Regarding the latter, we also gratefully thank the Asociación Española Contra el Cáncer (AECC) – Spanish Association against Cancer- for its longstanding support of several VHIO groups and researchers.


Spinning-off and out: updates 2020

2020 proved a particularly great year for VHIO’s Laura Soucek, Principal Investigator of our Mouse Models of Cancer Therapies Group, an ICREA Research Professor, and co-Founder & CEO of VHIO spin-off, Peptomyc S.L. (www. peptomyc.com). This VHIO-born spin-off, established in 2014 and co-created by Marie-Eve Beaulieu, CSO of the company and formerly a Postdoc in Laura’s group, focuses on the development of a new generation of cell penetrating peptides (CPPs) targeting the Myc oncoprotein for cancer treatment, and is based on Laura and her team’s scientific research into Omomyc -the best direct Myc inhibitor known to date- over the last twenty years.

Officially announced at the end of 2020, a new equity financing round led by Aurora Science will help Peptomyc lead its drug candidate OMO103 into clinical phase I/II development as anti-cancer therapy against solid tumors. OMO103 has already demonstrated its safety and anti-tumor activity in multiple types of experimental models of cancer and it is now ready to be tested in clinical studies. The treatment of the first patient with this lead candidate is expected to start as soon as possible in 2021.

Peptomyc relies on a strong syndicate of life sciences investors: AurorA Science, Alta Life Sciences, HealthEquity, Business Angels, and the Spanish Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI).

Peptomyc's team co-directed by Laura Soucek and Marie-Eve Beaulieu.

Joan Seoane, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Gene Expression & Cancer Group, and an ICREA Research Professor.

Pioneering research led by VHIO’s Joan Seoane, also an ICREA Professor, previously established the role of leukemia inhibitor factor (LIF) in oncogenesis as a promoter of cancer progression by regulating the tumor microenvironment and inducing self-renewal in tumor-initiating cells, and led to the development of MSC-1, a therapeutic LIF neutralizing antibody. MSC-1’s transition to the clinic and translation into benefits at the bedside thus represents an important addition to the current arsenal of powerful anti-cancer weaponry.

To do so, Joan went on to found VHIO-born spin-off, Mosaic Biomedicals, back in 2012, to design and develop the MSC-1 novel compound. At the end 2016, Mosaic merged with Northern Biologics Inc. (Toronto, Canada), towards accelerating the clinical development of this humanized antibody. This pairing reflected the same belief and backing received from other private investors including Versant, Caixa Captial Risc, as well as public funding received from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation’s Retos de Colaboración program, Spanish Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism’s ENISA, Spanish Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI), two European Research Council’s (ERC) Proof of Concept fundings, and private support received from its initial Business Angels. In 2020 Northern-Mosaic announced the global acquisition of clinical-stage MSC-1 by MedImmune.

Joan Seoane’s Gene Expression & Cancer Group, helped to design the phase II clinical trial to test MSC-1, which will begin to recruit patients next year, 2021.


Ana Vivancos, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Cancer Genomics Group and co-leader of the recently created spin-off, Reveal Genomics.

Created in 2020 to develop innovative diagnostic tests in oncology, the recently launched Reveal Genomics spin-off is led by Aleix Prat, Hospital Cliníc-IDIBAPS and the University of Barcelona (UB), together with Ana Vivancos, Principal Investigator of our Cancer Genomics Group, Charles M. Perou and Joel S. Parker, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill, USA), and Patricia Villagrasa, the Cooperative Clinical Research Group SOLTI, who has most recently be appointed as Reveal Genomics’ Chief Executive Officer.

The overarching goal is to develop diagnostic tools based on complex genomic data – initially for patients with advanced breast cancer- and combine genome-wide data to respond more precisely to clinical questions and the many challenges that currently hamper efforts aimed at solving cancer sooner.


VHIO’s task forcing in action. Disclaimer: these team pictures were taken before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Accelerating progress through team science, VHIO’s multidisciplinary teams, coordinated by our Scientific Manager and Head of VHIO’s Scientific Area, Alejandro Piris, also work together as established Task Forces that have been created based on VHIO’s strategic vision and core research priorities.

Each Task Force regularly convenes to synergize efforts, boost collaborations among groups and between specialists, and continuously revise respective circuits and ethics toward advancing cancer science and precision medicine. These comprehensive teams are comprised of preclinical and translational researchers, clinical investigators and medical oncologists, oncologists, pathologists, other MD disciplines, clinical research nurses, data curators and miners as well as study coordinators, and project managers, among others.


Multi-center consortia & cross border collaborations of excellence

VHIO is dedicated to forming, fostering and developing strong, multi-center partnerships that combine the necessary expertise and resources to more rapidly advance cancer discovery.

In addition to our leadership of -and participation in- several existing international consortia and alliances, 2020 celebrated the launch of several new collaborative opportunities as follows:

Cancer Core Europe Consortium-Building Data Rich Clinical Trials (CCE-DART)

The Cancer Core Europe Consortium – CCE, promotes the pooling and exchange of expertise, research findings, common platforms and processes, and empowers researchers and clinicians to rapidly exploit this trove of biological insights and clinical data for the benefit of patients. It also spearheads next generation clinical trials by designing and development data rich, dynamic studies in oncology.

In the current era of precision medicine, the advent of novel, adaptive clinical studies including the so-called basket and umbrella clinical trials, among others, aim to address the current challenges in oncology including the globalization of clinical research, and the use and implementation of emerging health technologies.

While randomized controlled trials are considered the gold standard for studying the effectiveness of treatment approaches and anti-cancer therapies, they do not allow for the ‘real time’ and necessary adaptation in tune with the rapid pace of cancer discovery – especially in the academic setting.

To overcome this challenge, novel clinical trial designs promote the optimization of biomarker-drug co-development towards more precisely tailoring therapies to each disease setting, each individual patient. In short, these ‘smarter’ contenders seek to more effectively identify the optimal treatment for the right patient, at the right time, and promise to overcome the rigidity and limitations of traditional clinical trials.

The EU-funded Cancer Core Europe Consortium-Building Data Rich Clinical Trials (CCE-DART) project is coordinated by VHIO’s Elena Garralda, Director of VHIO’s Research Unit for Molecular Therapy of Cancer (UITM) – CaixaResearch, and Principal Investigator of our Early Clinical Drug Development Group, and carried out in collaboration with other leading experts from within Cancer Core Europe Consortium. By harnessing and incorporating powerful cutting-edge technologies, methods and platforms, CCE-DART investigators will spur the design, development, and ringing in of a new generation of data rich, dynamic studies in oncology.

Building on the CCE-developed Basket of Baskets (BoB) investigator-initiated and adaptive trial which launched in 2018, CCE-DART will further enhance BoB’s harmonized, molecular multi-tier profiling platform to more precisely match patients to novel anti-cancer medicines based on the genetic specificities of their individual tumors. In parallel, the researchers will continue to develop multiple treatments in genomically-selected populations.

By introducing new tools –or adapting existing ones- the project will also seek to elevate the management and decision-making of clinical studies to the digital age, and ultimately represent a groundbreaking example for driving a new generation of clinical trials in by leveraging novel technologies within existing clinical structures.

The wealth of expertise, cutting edge technologies, and clinical trial capabilities provided through CCE’s member centers and sites, along with the additional four partners, the Digital Experimental Cancer Medicine Team, The Hyve, DataRiver, and Form Vision, will enable investigators to fortify and further develop the BoB trial’s dynamic and highly adaptive design.

Common infrastructures and the wealth of experience gained through CCE sites’ running of innovative academic studies, including the BoB study, will undoubtedly help the project partners to deliver on the four key objectives. Namely, to improve patient enrolment strategies and trial designs, accelerate the use of novel health technologies in the clinical setting, optimize clinical trial data management and analysis, and globalize the results of the project by promoting transparency of investigator-initiated studies.

Supported by EU’s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme, CCE-DART will aim to elevate current networks and existing legal, technological and clinical infrastructures to further develop a new generation of methods and tools for more efficient, personalized, and effective clinical trials in oncology.

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CCE-DART: Building Data Rich Clinical Trials.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 framework programme research under grant agreement No: 965397.


The ERA-PerMed supported RAD51predict Consortium: patient stratification based on DNA repair functionality for cancer precision medicine

The year 2020 celebrated the very first meeting of the ERA-PerMed funded RAD51predict Consortium, coordinated by VHIO’s Violeta Serra, Principal Investigator of our Experimental Therapeutics Group. Held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the project’s kick-off counted on the participation of 40 cancer researchers and clinical investigators across Europe and Canada.

ERA PerMed, is an ERA-Net Co-fund, comprising 32 partners from 23 countries and co-funded by the European Commission. This funding program aligns national research strategies, promotes excellence, reinforces the competitiveness of European players in personalized medicine, and enhances the European collaboration with non-EU countries. National funding organizations, including Spain’s Instituto de Salud Carlos III, coordinate the Joint Transnational Calls for collaborative innovative research projects in Personalised Medicine.

The ERA-PerMed RAD51predict Consortium, centers on RAD51predict: patient stratification based on DNA repair functionality for precision cancer medicine, and consists of five partners: the University Clinic of Giessen and Marburg (Germany). Institut Gustave Roussy (IGR)-INSERM U981, Villejuif (France), German Breast Group Forschungs GmbH, Neu-Isenburg (Germany), Université Laval (CHUQ), Quebec (Canada), and VHIO, along with six other collaborators, including two companies.

Over the past few years, Violeta Serra’s team has focused on various research projects based on the use of its RAD51 in vitro diagnostic test to predict those patients who would be most likely to benefit from therapy with PARP inhibitors (PARPi). Aimed at enabling the more precise and faster identification of patients with breast and ovarian cancer who could respond to these therapies, RAD51predict - headed by Alba Llop, Post-Doctoral Fellow of Violeta Serra’s group- has been developed to better guide the stratification of patients to clinical trials to evaluate the efficacy of PARPi across additional tumor types including prostate and endometrial cancers.

The RAD51predict in vitro diagnostic test for the more precise selection of cancer patients who could benefit from treatment with PARP inhibitors.

In 2020, VHIO’s RAD51predict test was also announced as one of the four projects selected in the first funding round of the CaixaResearch Consolidate. Reflective of the backing and belief in RAD51predict, initially called PARPiPRED, this test had already received finance and training in technology transfer through the CaixaResearch Validate program back in 2017.

Funding received through CaixaResearch Consolidate program will not only support this novel test through the next stages of the transfer-to-market process, but also facilitate access to mentors and innovation experts.


Interreg POCTEFA PROTEOblood

Coordinated by Gaël Roué and Pablo Menéndez, Group Leaders of the Barcelona-based Josep Carreras Leukemia Research Institute’s Stem Cell Biology, Developmental Leukemia and Immunotherapy, and Lymphoma Translational Groups, respectively, the EU-funded Interreg POCTEFA PROTEOblood Consortium, co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund/European Social Fund, aims to optimize, share and exploit latest technologies for the study of protein homeostasis in two prevalent subtypes of leukaemia and lymphoma: acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and diffuse large b-cell lymphoma (CLBCL) in the POCTEFA region (Spain-France-Andorra).

PROTEOblood, is a French-Spanish cooperative network for the analysis of proteinopathies and the development of individualized therapies in hematological cancers, co-funded by Interreg POCTEFA, and comprised of six other partners - CIC bioGUNE, IQS, CNRS, INSERM, Anaxomics Biotech, and VHIO. Using modelling collections from patient-derived studies to recreate the tumor microenvironment ex vivo, PROTEOblood’s expert teams will apply innovative proteomic approaches associated with system biology analysis and small molecule design, to facilitate the complete characterization of proteopathies and development of more effective therapies that will then be validated through xenoinjerts.

Key objectives of the PROTEOblood network include advancing personalized therapy for patients diagnosed with leukaemia or lymphoma, improving ex vivo experimental models for the prediction of response to treatment, developing advanced proteomic techniques for the study of protein related diseases, potentiating therapies against leukaemia and lymphoma, managing projects with large patient cohorts, and promoting the specialization and mobility of researchers and students.

VHIO’s participation in this project is headed by David Valcárcel, a Hematologist and Lead Investigator of our Experimental Hematology Group, directed by Francesc Bosch . Considering this group’s grounded expertise in SMD and allogenic transplants of stem cells, VHIO’s main role is to identify patients with recently diagnosed LMA, acquire samples and provide clinical and analytical data for the development of various studies.

The project has been co-financed by:

the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) through the Interreg V-A Spain-France-Andorra Programme (POCTEFA 2014-2020) – Ref: EFA360/19.

European Regional Development Fund/European Social Fund.


EURopeAn MEDical application and Radiation prOteCtion Concept: strategic research agenda aNd ROadmap interLinking to heaLth and digitisation aspects

The main objective of the 3-year EURAMED rocc-n-roll project is to generate a European consensus on research needs and priorities in medical radiation applications and corresponding radiation protection to optimize the use of ionizing radiation in medicine and therefore improve outcomes for patients throughout Europe.

Led by coordinating partner, the European Institute for Biomedical Imaging Research, Vienna (Austria), this pan-European consortium connects a total of 29 research centers of excellence, including VHIO.

VHIO’s involvement, led by Jordi Giralt, Principal Investigator of our Radiation Oncology Group centers on WP3: The Health Perspective and Risk Benefit Approach, to provide the health perspective of the application of ionizing radiation in medicine and radiation protection in selected disease areas, as well as analyze needs, opportunities, common interests and synergies.

Taking the lead on radiation application in oncological diseases, VHIO will work with other experts in other settings including neurovascular as well as cardiovascular diseases, and explore relevant clinical scenarios, as well as provide patients’ perspectives.

Specifically, Jordi Giralt and his team will analyze the needs of research in radiation application and corresponding radiation protection in oncology by identifying gaps and opportunities. They are tasked with compiling an overview of clinical situations that require the application of ionizing radiation in diagnosis and treatment, provide an outlook on envisaged future applications and trends in the oncology field, and describe the current state-of-the-art in practice for patients and staff.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No: 899995.


Strengthening our research, growing teams & fortifying facilities

As our Institute goes from strength to strength, and further develop its research lines and projects based on defined strategic directions, we continue to expand our scientific faculty as well as scientific support units and teams.

In 2020, we welcomed José Fernández Navarro as Principal Investigator of our newly established Bioinformatics Support Unit.

Joining our other Core Technologies, José’s Unit has been created to promote digital transformation, set optimal standards and best-practices for the processing, analysis and visualization of omics datasets, and help to develop state-of-the-art pipelines and tools for the processing, analyses, and visualization of different omics datasets.

VHIO’s Bioinformatics Support Unit will also provide support, expertise and resources to other VHIO teams and groups, establish collaborative research lines focused on advanced computational methods, machine learning, data analysis and visualization.

Watch this space!

José Fernández Navarro, Principal Investigator of our Core Technologies Program’s Bioinformatics Support Unit.

Headed by Gemma Sala, formerly Director of VHIO’s Clinical Trials Office, VHIO’s Quality & Processes Unit was established this year, 2020, in order to further improve quality and unify processes in clinical trials carried out at VHIO.

This Unit is made up of quality, and transversal support teams including those dedicated to sample management and scheduling.

Gemma Sala, former Director of VHIO’s Clinical Trials Office, now heads up our recently created Quality & Processes Unit.

Launched back in 1997, our Clinical Trials Office incorporates experts conducting clinical trials at the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital’s (HUVH) Medical Oncology Department (Vall d’Hebron Barcelona Hospital Campus), which is headed by VHIO’s Director, Josep Tabernero.

Directed by Marta Beltran since 2020, our Clinical Trials Office incorporates study coordinators, data managers, as well as administrative personnel, who coordinate phase I–IV clinical studies, and also participate in several translational research projects at VHIO.

Previously Head of gastrointestinal, lung, head & neck phase II-III clinical trials, Marta Beltran is now Director of our Clinical Trials Office.

Prizes & Recognitions 2020

In addition to all our newly funded research lines and programs in 2020, also driven through the support received each year from our Institutional Programs, and public and private national, European, and International funding sources and entities, VHIO’s investigators and teams have also been recognized through prizes, accolades and recognitions. Just some of which include the following:

International

Recognized by their peers, applauded by the world, VHIO’s Josep Tabernero and Enriqueta Felip once again featured among Clarivate’s 6,167 Global Highly Cited Researchers in 2020.

Published at the end of 2020, Clarivate’s Web of Science revealed its annual and global Highly Cited 2020 researchers list. Featuring among the world’s elite scientists at academic research institutes and commercial organizations -across the 21 fields of the sciences and social sciences categories- are VHIO’s Director, Josep Tabernero, and Enriqueta Felip, Principal Investigator of our Thoracic Tumors & Head and Neck Cancer Group.

Josep Tabernero, also Head of the Medical Oncology Department of the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital, Vall d’Hebron Barcelona Hospital Campus, was selected for the fifth consecutive year in recognition of his exceptional advancements in cancer research under the category of Clinical Medicine that lists a total of 492 named leaders in 2020.

Initially included in Clarivate’s Cross-Field category in 2018, Enriqueta Felip, who is also Head of the Lung Cancer Unit at Vall d’Hebron, and currently serves as Vice President of the Spanish Society of Medical Oncology (SEOM), joined Josep under the same field for a second year running.

The 2020 listing for Clinical Medicine includes 10 others from across Spain. Josep Tabernero and Enriqueta Felip are in the company of an additional 6 leading researchers in biomedicine who are also leading figures and pioneers of research in oncology, 3 of whom are based in Barcelona.

They are: Joaquim Bellmunt, Hospital de Mar Medical Research Institute (IMIM, Barcelona), Jordi Bruix, University of Barcelona, Josep M. Llovet, University of Barcelona, Maria Victoria Mateos, University of Salamanca, Jesús F. San Miguel, University of Navarra, and Luis Paz-Ares, Complutense University of Madrid.

Statistics surrounding regional concentrations of top talent revealed that Spain ranks 10th in the Top 10 list of countries with the highest number of Highly Cited Researchers. Specifically, a total of 103 trailblazers from Spain were recognized in 2020, including 3 listed global experts from Vall d’Hebron who are recognized under the Cross-Field category in 2020: Javier Cortés, a Translational Investigator at VHIO, and Francisco Guarner and Xavier Montalban, Vall d’Hebron Research Institute (VHIR).

Josep Tabernero, VHIO's Director and a Clarivate Highly Cited Researcher, 2020.
Enriqueta Felip, Principal Investigator, VHIO’s Thoracic Tumors & Head and Neck Cancer Group, and a Clarivate Highly Cited Researcher 2020.

Laura Soucek recognized as a Life Science Leader by Pharma Intelligence

In 2020, In Vivo Informa Pharma Intelligence revealed its first listing of ‘ones to watch’ in the life sciences from around the world. Featuring among its 30 Rising Leaders across the biopharma, medtech and health technology sectors, is VHIO’s Laura Soucek, Principal Investigator of our Mouse Models & Cancer Therapies Group, ICREA Professor, and co-Founder & CEO of VHIO spin-off, Peptomyc S.L.

Specifically, this listing shines important light on entrepreneurs and innovators who represent the next wave of creativity in healthcare, and incorporates leading figures in academia, CEOs of small and mid-sized companies and rising employees in larger biopharma and medtech businesses.

Over the last 20 years Laura’s determined research efforts have centered on combating resistance to therapy and putting the brakes on cancer cell spread through clinically inhibiting the Myc oncogene. Found deregulated in most, if not all tumor types, and as a key driver of cancer progression and maintenance, Myc is consequently a major contender as a cancer target and yet, promise of its inhibition has not yet been successfully translated into benefits at the patient level.

As a leading figure in the Myc field, Laura co-founded Peptomyc back in 2014 to design and develop anti-Myc peptides for the treatment cancer. Building on the many successes to date, Laura Soucek and Marie-Eve Beaulieu, Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) of the company, most recently announced (2021) that Peptomyc has received approval from the Spanish Agency of Medicines and Medical Devices for conducting clinical trials in Spain (AEMPS), to initiate the first-in-human Phase I/II clinical trial with its first compound – a disruptive Myc inhibitor, Omomyc (OMO-103).

In short, this latest recognition celebrates these achievements as well as Laura’s talent, creativity and strong leadership qualities.

Laura Soucek, Principal Investigator of our Mouse Models & Cancer Therapies Group, ICREA Professor, and co-Founder & CEO of VHIO spin-off, Peptomyc S.L.

César Serrano receives the Ramiro Carregal Award for New Talents in Oncological Research

Aimed at recognizing the dedicated contributions made by new talents in oncology, the Board of the Ramiro Carregal International Award for Scientific and Technical Oncological Research, broadened the scope of the Awards through by introducing the Ramiro Carregal Award for New Talents in Oncological Research back in 2019.

Announced in 2020, César Serrano, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Sarcoma Translational Research Group, is the recipient of the 2nd edition of this prestigious award. His candidature was proposed by the Grupo Español de Investigación en Sarcomas (GEIS – Spainsh Group for Research in Sarcomas), for which César serves as Member of the Board of Directors in Medical Oncology.

This accolade salutes his research contributions in identifying molecular drivers of oncogenic signaling in sarcomas, characterizing mechanisms of response and resistance to targeted therapies, and the preclinical modeling and validation of novel therapeutic strategies for patients suffering from sarcoma.

César Serrano, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Sarcoma Translational Research Group.

VHIO’s Ana Oaknin elected as co-Chair of the Gynecologic Cancer InterGroup’s Cervix Cancer Committee

Recognized for her global expertise in developing and leading multi-center studies and innovative clinical trial design to more effectively and precisely treat gynecological cancers, VHIO’s Ana Oaknin, was elected by the Executive Board of Directors of the Gynecological Cancer InterGroup (GCIG) as co-Chair of the Group’s Cervix Cancer Committee for the next two-year term and thereafter, spearhead the same expert panel as Chair for a further two years.

The Gynecologic Cancer InterGroup seeks to enhance the global impact of clinical trials in gynecologic cancer by promoting international cooperation, supporting clinical research, performing studies in rare tumors, stimulating evidence-based medicine, and spurring educational activities. GCIG’s mission is to promote and facilitate high quality clinical trials aimed at improving outcomes for women suffering from gynecological cancers.

Ana Oaknin, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Gynecological Malignancies Group, and Head of the Gynecological Cancer Program, Medical Oncology Department, the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital (HUVH – Vall d’Hebron Barcelona Hospital Campus).

National

VHIO’s Director, Josep Tabernero, awarded the National Research Award 2019

The National Research Award, with a 30-year history, is one of the most prestigious awards bestowed by the Catalonian Government and the Catalonian Foundation for Research and Innovation (FCRI). In 2020, our Director, Josep Tabernero, received the award as one of the most relevant clinical investigators, who has made exceptional contributions to global research in oncology, particularly in advancing anti-cancer medicines against gastrointestinal tumors, as well as pioneering the development of several novel targeted and immune-based therapies.

Also co-Director of VHIO’s Research Unit for Molecular Therapy of Cancer (UITM) – CaixaResearch, Josep is internationally renowned for developing and potentiating personalized treatments against colorectal cancer based on the molecular characteristics of each particular tumor, advancing cancer discovery for the more precise diagnosis and tracking of disease, and generating crucial insights into mechanisms of resistance and predictive biomarkers of response to therapy.

The National Research Award also honors his teams’ development of state-of-the-art experimental technologies, tools and platforms including liquid biopsy, as well as significant contributions made to advancing preclinical and translational cancer modeling such as patient-derived xenografts (PDX), and defining molecular subtypes of disease, particularly in colorectal cancer.

Our Director, Josep Tabernero (to the right), receiving his Award. The National Research Awards Ceremony 2019, was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and was celebrated at the Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya, in October 2020. The ceremony was presided by Meritxell Budó, Minister of the Presidency and Government Spokesman of Catalonia, and Ramon Tremosa (pictured left), Minister of Business and Knowledge, and President of the Catalan Foundation for Research and Innovation (FCRI).

VHIO’s duo of annual FERO Awards

One of our Patrons and Institutional Supporters, FERO Foundation - whose late Honorary President is José Baselga, who passed away on 21 March 2021 (see A Personal Tribute by our Director, Josep Tabernero) - announced its 2020 annual Award recipients back in May.

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the usual gathering of FERO’s community in celebration of these prestigious Awards, as well as its annual fundraising gala dinner, presided by Sol Daurella, FERO’s President, and Piru Cantarell, FERO’s General Manager, could not take place.

Regarding FERO’s Annual Awards for Translational Research, Raquel Perez-Lopez, PI of VHIO’s Radiomics Group, was prized for her project entitled Unraveling the tumor immunotherapy with deep-learning based radiogenomics. This FERO funding, supported by the Ramón Areces Foundation, will enable her to apply deep-learning models to medical imaging to achieve a greater understanding of tumor immunophenotypes.

More specifically, Raquel will lead research to develop an algorithm to correlate images obtained by computed tomography on the characteristics of tumors with the immune profile and response to immune-base therapies of individual patients. Using artificial intelligence, this approach will help to better predict those patients who would most likely benefit from immunotherapy, and more swiftly gauge patients’ response to these treatments.

The recipients of the second annual FERO-ghd Award for breast cancer research, were Cristina Saura, PI of our Breast Cancer Group, and Miriam Sansó, Post-Doctoral Fellow of VHIO’s Cancer Genomics Group directed by Ana Vivancos, who were jointly awarded for their pioneering research into circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) in breast milk for the early detection of pregnancy-associated breast cancer. This innovative project, investigating liquid biopsy in breast milk, seeks to ultimately improve the prognosis of this particular patient population.

From left to right: VHIO’s Raquel Lopez-Perez, Cristina Saura, and Miriam Sansó.

VHIO’s RAD51predict selected by CaixaResearch Consolidate

The ”la Caixa” Foundation’s CaixaResearch Consolidate program supports highly innovative solutions to achieve investment readiness and move closer to commercialization stages.

In 2020, VHIO’s RAD51predict directed by Violeta Serra, Principal Investigator of our Experimental Therapeutics Group, and headed by Alba Llop, Post-Doctoral Fellow of Violeta’s Group, was announced as one of the four projects selected in the first funding round of the CaixaResearch Consolidate. Reflective of the backing and belief in RAD51predict, initially called PARPiPRED, this test had already received finance and training in technology transfer through the CaixaResearch Validate program back in 2017.

Over the last few years, Violeta’s team has focused on various research projects based on the use of RAD51 as a biomarker to help personalize cancer treatment, and expand the use of PARP inhibitors. The RAD51predict test enables the more precise and faster identification of those patients with breast and ovarian cancer who would be most likely to benefit from these therapies, as well as guide the stratification of patients to clinical trials in order to evaluate the efficacy of PARP inhibitors across additional tumor types.

Funding received through CaixaResearch Consolidate will not only support this innovative project through the next stages of the transfer-to-market process, but also facilitate access to mentors and innovation experts.

Violeta Serra (left), PI of the RAD51predict project, Alba Llop (right), project lead.

Of note, 2020 also celebrated the first virtual meeting of the ERA PerMed supported Consortium consisting of five partners, and six associates including two companies. Focused on validating the RAD51pedict test, and co-funded by the European Commission, this powerful partnership is coordinated by Violeta Serra. To discover more about this innovative research project entitled RAD51predict: patient stratification based on DNA repair functionality for precision medicine, click here.


Marking World Cancer Research Day 2020: VHIO researchers and projects granted by AECC

Launched back in 2016 by the Asociación Española Contra el Cáncer (Spanish Association against Cancer – AECC), and officially co-promoted in collaboration with leading organizations and Societies in oncology, World Cancer Research Day (WCRD) is held annually on 24 September to encourage the active involvement of citizens, institutions and leaders across various fields to support the advancement of research against cancer.

The global cancer burden rose to 19.3 million new cases and almost 10.0 million cancer deaths (9.9 million excluding nonmelanoma skin cancer) occurred in 2020. Overall, the burden of cancer incidence and mortality is rapidly increasing worldwide. This reflects both aging and growth of the population as well as changes in the prevalence and distribution of the main risk factors for cancer, several of which are associated with socioeconomic development.

Accelerating cancer science and translating insights into improved outcomes for patients as swiftly as possible, must therefore be a top priority for the entire oncology ecosystem as well as the public at large. It certainly is for the AECC as its continued funding of cancer research of excellence across Spain and beyond remains at the Association’s very core.

In celebration of World Cancer Research Day, the AECC announced its 2020 awardees virtually on the big day itself, 24 September. Unfortunately due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its annual Award Ceremony in Madrid, presided each year by Her Majesty the Queen Letizia of Spain, AECC’s Honorary President, did not take place.

To mark the occasion, the AECC organized a timely Dialogue Session focused on COVID-19 and the effects on cancer research as well as possible future implications for investigation. The discussion streamed live and counted on the presence of two renowned leaders in oncology, VHIO’s Director and Head of the Medical Oncology Department at Vall d’Hebron, Josep Tabernero, and Mariano Barbacid, AXA-CNIO Professor of Molecular Oncology, the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre, Madrid.

Moderated by Spanish journalist, Purificación Beltrán, and joined by the other invited panelists, Isabel Orbe, Director General of AECC’s Scientific Foundation, Marta Pujol, Director of Biomedical Research of AECC’s Scientific Foundation, as well as Belén Pastor, an AECC-supported cancer researcher at the Valencian Institute of Oncology (IVO), conversations also centered on the importance of increased investment in cancer science and clinical research, incentives to nurture, grow and support the careers of researchers in Spain, and the strengthening of national cancer planning.

AECC’s World Cancer Day 2020 streamed Dialogue Session (left to right): Isabel Orbe, Director General of AECC’s Scientific Foundation, Purificación Beltrán (Moderator), Mariano Barbacid, AXA-CNIO Professor of Molecular Oncology - CNIO, Marta Pujol, Director of Biomedical Research of AECC’s Scientific Foundation, Josep Tabernero, VHIO’s Director, and Belén Pastor, cancer researcher at the Valencian Institute of Oncology (IVO).

VHIO AECC Award recipients announced on World Cancer Research Day 2020

Three of our Post-Doctoral Fellows, Isabel Puig, VHIO’s Stem Cells & Cancer Group (PI: Héctor G. Palmer), Alba Llop, Experimental Therapeutics Group (PI: Violeta Serra), and Ester Bonfill, Gene Expression & Cancer Group (PI: Joan Seoane), were awarded across three of AECC’s many funding programs and initiatives.

Isabel Puig received an Ideas Semilla (Seed Ideas) grant for her research on dormancy and autophagy: decoding the molecular mechanism that mediates cancer drug resistance. One of these mechanisms is the ability of some tumor cells to remain in a latent state and thus resist antitumor therapies.

Strategies to block autophagy as a possible mechanism enhancing dormant cancer cell survival have been proposed to eradicate these cells. However, despite the promise of autophagy modulators as pharmacotherapeutic agents, clinical results show that toxicity remains as a major limitation. It is therefore imperative to discover selective autophagy inhibitors that specifically target autophagic proteins that are defective only in a disease context to maximize therapeutics effects and minimize side effects.

Previous data published by Héctor’s group revealed the central role of epigenetic factor DPPA3 in regulating cell dormancy and chemoresistance. It has been described that, in addition to its epigenetic nuclear function, DPPA3 also has a role in the cytoplasm, modulating the lysosome-dependent degradation step at the late stage of autophagy. Moreover, while DPPA3 is not expressed in normal adult tissues they found that it is abnormally overexpressed in slow-cycling/dormant cancer cells.

Based on the hypothesis that DPPA3 could improve the efficacy of hypoxia-induced autophagy in dormant tumor cells, thus enhancing its function as a protective cell survival mechanism against therapeutic stress and driver of resistance to therapy, this present project will aim to decode the molecular mechanisms underlying the crosstalk between dormancy, hypoxia, autophagy and drug resistance to provide a deeper understanding of dormant tumor cell biology. In so doing, the investigators hope to open up new research avenues to develop more effective therapies against disease recurrence.

Alba Llop and Ester Bonfill were prized as an AECC Investigator and AECC Postdoctoral Researcher, respectively. This funding will enable Alba to pursue her research on Tumor DNA repair functionality and immunologic profile as predictive and prognostic biomarkers for cancer precision medicine, as well as spur Ester’s investigations into the Impact of LIF and the tumor microenvironment on the immunomodulation of brain metastasis.

Directed by Violeta Serra Alba Llop’s awarded project aims to establish the predictive and prognostic values of the RAD51 test, and immune-related biomarkers in four major tumor types: breast, ovarian, prostate and endometrial cancers). The overarching objectives are to more swiftly and precisely stratify patients for anti-cancer therapies, and propose more effective drug combinations, in order to combat disease relapse and improve the survival of patients.

Building on previous findings reported by Joan Seoane’s Gene Expression & Cancer Group that identified the cytokine LIF as an immunomodulatory factor contributing to the brain immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment (TME) in glioblastoma, Ester Bonfill’s research will use patient-derived models to study the role of TME in brain metastasis and its impact on TILs with a special focus on LIF. Achieving a deeper understanding of the molecular mechanisms involved in brain metastasis TME will help to identify novel therapeutic targets to more effectively tackle this disease.

Directed by Joan Seoane, Ester Bonfill will lead research into the brain tumor microenvironment in the context of brain metastasis, including the study of the impact of LIF on TILs, in order to identify robust therapeutic targets, including LIF. The investigators will study the immune profile of the brain TME in order to identify immunomodulatory factors that could be considered as potential targets. These novel therapeutic targets could lead to the development of therapeutic compounds to be used in combination.

The group’s patient-derived functional models and the integration of their data with clinical findings will provide insights into the role of immunotherapy in the context of human tumors. This will accelerate the translation of results into the clinic, for the benefit of patients.

VHIO’s AECC awardees announced in celebration of World Cancer Research Day, 24 September 2020. Left to right: Isabel Puig, VHIO’s Stem Cells & Cancer Group (PI: Héctor G. Palmer), Alba Llop, Experimental Therapeutics Group (PI: Violeta Serra), and Ester Bonfill, Gene Expression & Cancer Group (PI: Joan Seoane).

VHIO AECC Award recipients announced on World Cancer Research Day 2020

César Serrano, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Sarcoma Translational Research Group, received support as an AECC Senior Clinician for his project on the Molecular landscape of resistance to KIT/PDGFRA inhibition in gastrointestinal stromal tumors.

This research will focus on patterns of resistance to targeted therapies in gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs). Most GISTs have so-called addiction to the oncogenic power of two cell receptors, KIT and PDGFRA, and its targeted inhibition with tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs), such as first-line imatinib, significantly improves outcomes for patients.

Unfortunately, progression eventually occurs in 2 years through the expansion of several types of resistant mutations in KIT. Targeting KIT remains an important strategy after imatinib failure, but all available TKIs only achieve moderate activity, leading to a poor prognosis. Achieving a better understanding of the mechanisms of disease progression in order to design novel therapeutic approaches in GIST with no treatment options available, is consequently imperative.

The spectrum of resistance in this particular patient population remains unknown. Although acquired KIT mutations are relevant and well known, our preliminary work has enabled us to envisage two different, yet interrelated mechanisms progressively enriched throughout the course of disease: 1) by-pass of KIT as the critical driver; and 2) stepwise alterations involving big regions of the genes.

Led by César Serrano, research will aim to dissect the landscape of resistance in imatinib-resistant GIST patients to generate novel therapeutic strategies. To do so, his team will study all the DNA alterations present in GIST tumor tissue, its biologic function, and develop novel treatments in the laboratory that can be translated to GIST patients in the clinic.

AECC Senior Clinician: César Serrano, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Sarcoma Translational Research Group.

Throughout 2020, other VHIO investigators were also prized through other AECC funding initiatives:

The project entitled Leveraging the AR-DDR interaction in de-novo metastatic prostate cancer towards precision combination therapies with PARP inhibitors, directed by Joaquin Mateo, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Prostate Cancer Translational Research Group was awarded through an AECC Laboratory grant.

Alterations in DNA damage repair (DDR) pathways are common in the advanced disease setting, and thus represent therapeutic targets. Joaquin Mateo’s group, and others, have demonstrated that DDR alterations are predictive biomarkers for PARP inhibitors (PARPi) in metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC); however, there is significant inter-patient variability in the duration of response.

Cross-regulation between AR signaling and DDR pathways has been demonstrated in preclinical models: PARP-1 modulates AR function and androgen deprivation has been shown to impair double-strand break repair. Clinical trials are ongoing to validate this approach towards improving outcomes for patients, and expanding target populations who might benefit from therapy with PARPi.

Prostate cancer is a particularly heterogeneous disease, both clinically and molecularly. Hence, understanding the molecular underpinnings of each case, and how these tumors change over the course of time is critical to delivering more personalized and precise care to patients. Most prostate cancers are treated with drugs that target androgens, the main male hormones; but these therapies collaterally affect other biological pathways tumors.

Based on the hypothesis that a deeper understanding into how these other pathways are affected will result in more effective combinations of treatments to delay cancer progression and improve patients’ outcomes. Specifically, Joaquin’s team will explore how the changes in tumors triggered by the exposure to a therapy could induce a liability for tumors, becoming responsive to a second drug. Using biopsy samples from over 120 patients who participated in two clinical trials, one conducted in the US, and the other in Spain, they will test two hormonal therapies with or without the addition of PARPi.

By evaluating how tumors adapt to treatment exposure from the perspective of other biology pathways becoming affected, how this determines response to the combination with PARPi, they will also assess serial blood samples from the same patients to establish whether the same effect in cancer traces present in the blood, to minimize the need for repeated tumor biopsies.

The investigators will capitalize existing resources, biopsies that were collected from patients participating in clinical trials, to provide new insights into how this tumor type becomes responsive or resistant to new drugs, and correlate findings with the outcomes of these patients in the clinical trial in order to translate our results into advances in patient care.

Joaquin Mateo, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Prostate Cancer Translational Research Group.

Héctor G. Palmer, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Stem Cells & Cancer Group, received funding through AECC’s Innova program for his project on First-in-class small drug activators of TET2 for the treatment of cancer.

The global rise in the incidence of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is expected to lead to a huge demand for novel and more effective therapies. Hypomethylating agents (HMAs) currently represent a non-intensive strategy for AML patients who cannot be treated with chemotherapy. HMAs randomly demethylate the genome overcoming differentiation blockage and promoting death of myeloid blasts. These drugs present unsatisfactory efficacy mostly due to their unspecific mechanisms of action and the lack of biomarkers for the selection of drug-sensitive patients.

In response, Héctor G. Palmer’s group is developing a first-in-class agent to activate TET2 as a novel target in AML. Similar to HMAs, TET2 activation promotes differentiation and death of AML blasts, but in this case, by locus-specific instead of a global DNA demethylation. His team expects that TET2 activators will revolutionize AML treatment showing better efficacy than HMAs, for three main reasons: a precise selection of drug-sensitive patients based on mutations causing partial loss-of-TET2 function, monitoring target engagement (PD marker) by measuring the enzymatic product of TET2 activity, and improving drug combinations thanks to Héctor’s group’s detailed knowledge on drug mode of action.

Main objectives include the development of target-directed therapy in precision oncology for this patient population, and exploitation of the finding that TET2 is altered in other tumor types and diseases beyond oncology; a reality that could be exploited in their future development of anti-cancer therapies.

Héctor’s group has already report the tumoral efficacy on leukemia cells in culture and animal models. With the present project they will aim to advance in optimizing the pharmacological properties of their lead TET2 activating drugs prior to evaluation in clinical trials.

Héctor G. Palmer, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Stem Cells & Cancer Group.

Post-Doctoral Fellow of VHIO’s Chromatin Dynamics in Cancer Group, Tian Tian, has been awarded as an AECC Investigator for his research into the Characterisation of fusion protein BRD-NUT in NUT midline carcinoma: from diagnosis to treatment.

Directed by this group’s Principal Investigator, Sandra Peiró, he will seek to advance insights into NUT midline carcinoma (NMC); a highly aggressive tumor type, occurring anywhere along the trunk or head. This type of cancer is frequently misdiagnosed, and lacks effective therapeutic strategies, with a mean survival of less than 7 months after diagnosis. Recent research shows that in NMC cells, there is a chromosomal translocation resulting in the fusion of BRD and NUT proteins. However, the role of fusion protein BRD-NUT in NMC oncogenesis and progression is not yet understood.

Tian Tian will seek out novel avenues for the more efficient diagnosis and effective treatment of NMC by implementing and standardizing NMC diagnosis in clinical practice, studying how BRD-NUT fusion proteins shape 3D genome configuration and its relation to cancer, and assessing the potential of two novel therapies.

AECC Investigator: Tian Tian, Post-Doctoral Fellow, VHIO’s Chromatin Dynamics in Cancer Group (PI: Sandra Peiró).

We salute and applaud AECC’s invaluable contribution to promoting cancer discovery and translational research of excellence, as well as the support it provides to countless researchers and groups across Spain and beyond.

For a full listing of the AECC’s supported projects and research endeavors at VHIO in 2020, please see: New Funding and Projects in 2020.


Elena Garralda to develop tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte (TIL) therapy against checkpoint inhibitor-resistant tumors

Based on research conducted by VHIO’s Alena Gros, Principal Investigator of our Tumor Immunology & Immunotherapy Group, we established a working group in 2020 to develop our first VHIO TIL-based therapy trial. Awarded by the Carlos III Health Institute (ISCIII) in 2020, this study will commence in 2021, directed by Elena Garralda, Principal Investigator of our Early Clinical Drug Development Group, and Director of VHIO’s Research Unit for Molecular Therapy of Cancer (UITM) – CaixaResearch.

Entitled Next generation TIL therapy targeting neoantigens for immune checkpoint blockade (ICB)-resistant tumors, the goal of this pioneering project is to develop neo-antigen-specific TIL therapy for ICB-resistant solid cancers. To this end, the team will conduct a phase I clinical study to treat patients with advanced solid tumors refractory to standard therapy who progressed to at least one line of ICB with neo-antigen-reactive TIL.

By exploiting a personalized high-throughput screening strategy, the investigators will aim to advance insights into specific tumor or TIL traits associated with clinical outcomes, and potentiate the efficacy of neo-antigen-reactive TIL products in future clinical trials.

Elena Garralda, Principal Investigator of our Early Clinical Drug Development Group, and Director of VHIO’s Research Unit for Molecular Therapy of Cancer (UITM) – CaixaResearch.
Alena Gros, Principal Investigator of VHIO's Tumor Immunology & Immunotherapy Group.

Raquel Perez-Lopez: prized winner of the CRIS Clinical Talent Program

In 2020, Raquel Perez-Lopez, Principal Investigator of our Radiomics Group, was announced as recipient of a CRIS Cancer Foundation’s Clinical Talent Program award. Aimed at providing support and incentives for clinical research to develop their careers in Spain, this five-year funding program will enable Raquel to develop and advance her research lines carried out at VHIO and the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital.

This grant not only represents an important boost to her career as a Clinical Investigator, but will also enable Raquel and her team to advance insights in oncology and potentiate anti-cancer medicines through the application of precision imaging. Specifically, her group will seek out novel approaches to improve current imaging techniques used in both the diagnosis and tracking of disease, as well as combine imaging with genomic data in order to better identify those patients who would be most likely to respond to immune-based therapies, and those who will not.

Raquel Perez-Lopez, Principal Investigator, VHIO’s Radiomics Group.

Paolo Nuciforo, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Molecular Oncology Group, was awarded this year through the Fundación Mutua Madrileña’s XVII edition of Awards that support research in healthcare.

Building on his previous research establishing Fusobacterium as a relevant pathogenic intestinal bacterium of the microbiota which is associated with colorectal cancer (CRC), and showing that persistency of Fusobacterium nucleatum after neoadjuvant chemo-radiotherapy (nCRT), is associated with higher rates of relapse in patients with locally advanced rectal cancer, Paolo Nuciforo leads the FUSOMAP collaborative project, prized this year by the Mutua Madrileña Foundation.

Entitled Mapping the geography of intratumoral Fusobacterium nucleatum and associated gut microbiota in early-stage CRC, this Spanish multi-center project, represents an important step forward in facilitating the development of personalized microbiome-based CRC diagnosis and anti-cancer medicines against this disease. The project investigators directed by Paolo, will seize on this opportunity by researching the prevalence, patterns and composition of F. nucleatum and associated microbiota in patients from different metropolitan areas. At tissue level, they will study the topological distribution of microbiome contexture within the tumor.

This project counts on the expertise of colleagues across several Spanish research centers of excellence, and is also carried out in collaboration with other VHIO researchers including Elena Élez, Medical Oncologist and Clinical Investigator of our Gastrointestinal & Endocrine Tumors Group (PI: Teresa Macarulla), who will coordinate the enrolment of patients in this study at Vall d’Hebron, as well as Iosune Baraibar of this same group.

Paolo Nuciforo, Principal Investigator of our Molecular Oncology Group: awarded by the Fundación Mutua Mardrileña for the collaborative FUSOMAP project.

In addition to the examples highlighted here -featuring just some of the many newly funded research lines, initiatives and programs in 2020- we invite you to browse our comprehensive listing under New funding and projects in 2020, as well as view a complete listing of our Institutional Supporters, public and private national, European, and International funding sources and entities this year.


VHIO-organized events: sharing the latest insights & developments in cancer science and clinical investigation

VHIO is dedicated to organizing events of the highest caliber to present and debate the very latest in cancer discovery – from the bench to bedside and back. These educational opportunities often lead to new research collaborations that continue to accelerate our collective efforts aimed at solving cancer sooner.


Launched in 2019, our VHIO – CaixaResearch Scientific Seminars Series educational program welcomes internationally renowned researchers and clinical investigators to VHIO to share, discuss and debate latest insights, discovery and next directions in oncology with our students, postdocs and senior faculty from our preclinical, translational and clinical research groups.

These sessions take place in VHIO’s state-of-the-art CELLEX Building Auditorium, although the majority in 2020, were hosted virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Each seminar typically consists of a 30-45 minute talk followed by a Q&A round with the audience. Chaired be each respective VHIO host, these expert talks are typically scheduled to take place on Fridays.

Scientific co-Chairs (left to right): María Abad, PI, Cellular Plasticity & Cancer Group, Laura Soucek, PI, Mouse Models of Cancer Therapies Group, and Elena Élez, Medical Oncologist and Clinical Investigator, Gastrointestinal & Endocrine Tumors Group.

In 2020, a total of 21 VHIO - CaixaResearch Scientific Seminars took place as follows:


Speaker: Romian Quidant, Plasmon Nano-Optics Group Leader and ICREA Professor, Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO)
Talk title: New opportunities in medicine enabled by light and nanotechnology
Date: 17 January (in person)
VHIO host: Josep Tabernero, VHIO’s Director


Speaker: Marisol Soengas, Group Leader Melanoma, Spanish National Cancer Research Centre – CNIO, Madrid, Spain.
Talk title: Imaging and targeting premetastatic niches in melanoma
Date: 31 January (in person)
VHIO host: Maria Abad, PI, Cellular Plasticity & Cancer


Speaker: Shuji Ogino, Chief of Molecular Pathological Epidemiology (MPE) Program, Dept. of Pathology, Brigham & Women’s Hospital (BWH). Professor of Pathology, BWH, Harvard Medical School. Professor of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Associate Member, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Boston, USA.
Talk title: Integrative Analyses of Environment, Lifestyle, Microbiota, and Tumor Immunity for Precision Oncology
Date: 10 February (in person)
VHIO hosts: Josep Tabernero, VHIO’s Director & Paolo Nuciforo, PI, Molecular Oncology


Speaker: Gerard I. Evan, Sir William Dunn Professor and Head of Biochemistry Department, University of Cambridge, UK.
Talk title: Switching the tumor immune microenvironment on and off with Myc
Date: 14 February (in person)
VHIO host: Laura Soucek, PI, Mouse Models of Cancer Therapies


Speaker: Gabriel Adrian Rabinovich, Vice-Director and Group Leader of Functional Glycomics and Head of Immunopathology, the Instituto de Biologia y Medicina Experimental (IBYME), Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Talk title: The emerging role of glycocheckpoints: the sweet side of cancer immunotherapy
Date: 06 March (in person)
VHIO host: Laura Soucek, PI, Mouse Models of Cancer Therapies


Speaker: Violeta Serra, PI, VHIO’s Experimental Therapeutics Group
Talk title: Clinically relevant biomarkers of PARP1 inhibitor resistance and indicators of targeted combinatorial treatments
Date: 24 April (online)


Speaker: Raffaela Di Micco, Group Leader at San Raffaele Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy, Italy.
Talk title: Dissecting mechanisms of acute myeloid leukemia response to therapy and relapse
Date: 08 May (online)
VHIO host: Maria Abad, PI, Cellular Plasticity & Cancer


Speaker: Fran Balkwill, Professor of Cancer Biology, BartsCancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London (UK)
Talk title: Modelling and targeting the ovarian cancer microenvironment
Date: 22 May (online)
VHIO host: Laura Soucek, PI, Mouse Models of Cancer


Speaker: Oscar Fernández, Vice Director and Head of the Genomic Instability Group, Spanish National Cancer Research Center (CNIO), Madrid.
Talk title: Nucleolar Stress as a driver (and a vulnerability) in cancer
Date: 05 June (online)
VHIO host: Joan Seoane, Director of Translational Research at VHIO


Speaker: Maria Mittelbrunn, Associate Member, Head of Immunometabolism and Inflammation Lab, Centre for Molecular Biology «Severo Ochoa» (CBMSO), Madrid.
Talk title: Stressed T cells induce multimorbidity and premature senescence
Date: 19 June (online)
VHIO host: Maria Abad, PI, Cellular Plasticity & Cancer


Speaker: Alberto Bardelli, Director of Laboratory Molecular Oncology at the Candiolo Cancer Institute IRCCS and Associate Professor at the Department of Oncology, University of Turin, IRCCS, Italy.
Talk title: Inactivation of DNA repair and high dose Vitamin C boost cancer immunotherapy
Date: 03 July (online)
VHIO host: Joan Seoane, Director of Translational Research


Speaker: Roger Paredes, Chief of Section at the HIV Unit, Hospital Germans Trias i Pujol and Head of the Microbial Genomics Group at the IrsiCaixa AIDS Research Institute, Badalona, Catalonia, Spain.
Talk title: The human microbiome in HIV and cancer: what can we learn?
Date: 17 July (online)
VHIO host: Paolo Nuciforo, PI, Molecular Oncology


Speaker: Maurizio Scaltriti, Maurizio Scaltriti, Associate Laboratory Member, Human Oncology & Pathogenesis Program, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, USA
Talk title: Genomic dependencies and vulnerabilities in solid tumors
Date: 08 September (online)
VHIO host: Josep Tabernero, VHIO’s Director


Speaker: Andrea Alimonti, Group Leader, Molecular Oncology and Mouse Models, Institute of Oncology Research, Bellinzona, Switzerland.
Talk title: Targeting MDSC for prostate cancer therapy
Date: 18 September (online)
VHIO host: Joaquin Mateo, PI, Prostate Cancer Translational Research


Speaker: Jose Antonio Seoane, Instructor, Curtis Lab, Cancer Computational and Systems Biology Group, Stanford Cancer Institute, California, USA.
Talk title: Role of chromatin regulatory genes in breast cancer
Date: 22 September (online)
VHIO host: Josep Tabernero, VHIO’s Director


Speaker: Chris Lord, Deputy Head of Division, Team Leader of the CRUK Gene Function Laboratory and Professor of Cancer Genomics in the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, UK.
Talk title: Exploiting synthetic lethality in the design of new therapeutic approaches for cancer
Date: 02 October (online)
VHIO hosts: Violeta Serra, PI, Experimental Therapeutics & Judith Balmaña, PI, Hereditary Cancer Genetics


Speaker: Marc Landanyi, Attending Pathologist and and Chief of the Molecular Diagnostics Service and Member in the Human Oncology & Pathogenesis Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), New York, USA.
Talk title: Clinical Cancer Genomics: Lessons and Insights from 50,000 patients with advanced solid tumors
Date: 16 October (online)
VHIO host: César Serrano, PI, Sarcoma Translational


Speaker: Mariano Barbacid, Mariano Barbacid, Head of the Laboratory of Experimental Oncology, AXA-CNIO Professor of Molecular Oncology, CNIO, Madrid, Spain.
Talk title: Targeting KRAS mutant tumors: Light at the end of the tunnel
Date: 30 October (online)
VHIO host: Laura Soucek, PI, Mouse Models of Cancer Therapies


Speaker: Luís Enjuanes, CSIC Research Professor, Head of the Laboratory of Replication, Virus-Host Interactions and Protection in Coronavirus. National Biotechnology Center (CNB), Madrid. Spain.
Talk title: SARS-2 Human Coronavirus: pathology and protection
Date: 20 November 2020 (online)
VHIO host: Maria Abad, PI, Cellular Plasticity & Cancer


Speaker: Antonis Antoniou, Professor of Cancer Risk Prediction, Academic Course Director for the MPhil in Epidemiology, University of Cambridge, London, UK.
Talk title: Breast and ovarian cancer risk stratification: progress and challenges
Date: 27 November (online)
VHIO hosts: Judith Balmaña & Sara Gutiérrez-Enríquez, Judith Balmaña and Sara Gutiérrez, PI and Senior Scientist, respectively, Hereditary Cancer Genetics


Speaker: Amparo Cano, Full Professor, Department of Biochemistry, School of Medicine, Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain.
Talk title: LOXl2, Snail1 and E2A interplay in the regulation of breast cancer initiation and metastasis
Date: 11 December (online)
VHIO host: Josep Villanueva, PI, Tumor Biomarkers


Ad-hoc courses, workshops & observerships

Based on specific lines and research areas that continue to position VHIO as a leading international reference, we share our expertise, learn from eminent guest speakers, discuss and debate our latest findings through the organization of VHIO ad-hoc courses and workshops.

Exchanging latest discovery in cancer science and medicine, VHIO organized and hosted a total of 18 Courses, Workshops, Observerships and Perceptorships in 2020. Naturally, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of these were conducted virtually, online.

1.Sesión de Actualización en Terapias Dirigidas en Pacientes EGFR y ALK, 31 January. Coordinator: Enriqueta Felip, PI, VHIO’s Thoracic Tumors & Head and Neck Cancer Group. 2. Preceptorship en Cáncer de Ovario, 06 March. Scientific Coordinator and Academic Tutor: Ana Oaknin, PI, VHIO’s Gynecological Malignancies Group. 3. Preceptorship en Genética del Cáncer Hereditario, 17 July. Director: Judith Balmaña, PI, VHIO’s Hereditary Cancer Genetics Group. 4. Masterclass en gestión sanitaria: las claves de un modelo de excelencia en MM y LLC, 17 September. Directors: Juan José Lahuerta, Head, Hematology Service, the 12 de Octubre University Hospital, Madrid, & Francesc Bosch, PI, VHIO’s Experimental Hematology Group.

Established back in February 2016 by co-Founders Verónica Rodilla, a former Post-Doctoral Fellow of VHIO’s Growth Factors Group (PI: Joaquín Arribas), and Jordi Martínez Quintanilla, Post-Doctoral Fellow of our Stem Cells & Cancer Group (PI: Héctor G. Palmer), our series of Benchstoming Seminars represent an excellent educational opportunity for junior faculty at VHIO to both present and exchange on and around their respective research interests across VHIO’s various research programs.

Not only do our young researchers learn more about their other colleagues and research lines currently underway, they can also express their ideas surrounding a given topic presented at each seminar; the specially crafted informal format favors free thought, flow, and interaction between the speakers and participants.

In 2019 Elena Senís, Post-Doctoral Fellow of VHIO’s Cellular Plasticity & Cancer Group (PI: Maria Abad) and Benchstorming Co-Chair, announced that Chiara Bellio, Post-Doctoral Fellow of VHIO’s Tumor Biomarkers Group (PI: Josep Villanueva), had taken over the reins from previous Co-Chair Toni Jauset, a former member of VHIO’s Mouse Models of Cancer Therapies Group (PI: Laura Soucek).

At the end of 2020, Elena Senís stood down as Benchstorming co-Chair, and Sara Simonetti, Attending Physician of VHIO’s Molecular Oncology Group (PI: Paolo Nuciforo), and Tian Tian, Post-Doctoral Fellow of our Chromatin Dynamics in Cancer Group (PI: Sandra Peiró), joined Chiara as Benchstorming co-Chairs. We take this opportunity to thank Elena for her hard work and dedication.

Our Benchstorming co-Chairs (left to right): Sara SImonetti, Tian Tian and Chiara Bellio.

In 2020, 11 Benchstorming Sessions took place, during which each invited VHIO investigator discussed and ‘benchstormed’ their respective research areas. Each session is graded by all attendees and one presenter is announced as winner of the best presentation. Emanuela Greco, Graduate Student of our Cellular Plasticity & Cancer Group (PI: María Abad), was ‘crowned’ for her presentation from season one: MIDORI micropeptide: when epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition commits hara-kiri.

Emanuela Greco, Graduate Student of our Cellular Plasticity & Cancer Group (PI: María Abad), was announced as the best ‘Benchstormer’ for her presentation during season one: MIDORI micropeptide: when epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition commits hara-kiri.

VHIO's public engagement & outreach

VHIO supports and organizes activities to increase public interest in cancer research and promote the important advances reported by our scientists and clinical investigators. These efforts are aimed at patients, youngsters and non-specialized adult audiences to enrich scientific culture as well as promote science as a stimulating career path for young people – the future of our research.

Importantly, some of these initiatives have resulted in considerable funding for research at VHIO. We will continue to identify, lead and participate in all these precious initiatives and launch new ones based on identified opportunities.

In addition to VHIO’s comprehensive lay media program and the invited participation and presence of our researchers and clinical investigators across a broad range of communication channels, as well as campaigns tailored to our social media platforms and respective target audiences, VHIO led and/or participated in over 20 public outreach events, programs and fundraising initiatives.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our planned activities had to be cancelled. The majority those that could go ahead were either conducted virtually, or carried out in strict accordance with the stipulated social distancing rules and required safety measures.

Illustrative of these efforts, we take this opportunity to mention just a few of the many highlights in 2020:

6th edition of our annual breast cancer workshops, aimed at cancer patients, their friends and families, and the general public. These meetings are coordinated by Marta Capelan (featured in photos 2 and 4 below), Medical Oncologist and Clinical Investigator of VHIO’s Breast Cancer Group (PI: Cristina Saura). Organized in collaboration with the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital’s Breast Cancer Unit and other expert teams across the Vall d’Hebron Barcelona Hospital Campus, these workshops were supported by Pfizer this year.

HUVH-VHIO's annual breast cancer workshops for our cancer patients, their families and friends, as well as the general public.

Selected international media were invited by Barcelona Global to meet out research teams, and learn more about our various activities and programs. Hosted by VHIO, this event took place on 23 January, prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. This meeting was hosted by VHIO’s Enriqueta Felip (PI: Thoracic Tumors & Head and Neck Cancer Group), on behalf of our Director, Josep Tabernero, who could not attend due to prior engagements.


To mark World Cancer Day, February 04, 2020, VHIO’s Judith Balmaña (PI: Hereditary Cancer Genetics Group), Laura Soucek (PI: Mouse Models of Cancer Therapies Group), and Elena Garralda (PI: VHIO’s Early Clinical Drug Development Group, and Director of our Research Unit for Molecular Cancer Therapy of Cancer – UITM, CaixaResearch), were invited among other leading experts in oncology across the Vall d’Hebron Barcelona Hospital Campus, to participate as panelists and speakers.

Including the participation of cancer patients, and aimed at the general public at large, this special session addressed key topics including the latest advancements and novel therapies in oncology driven through research, cancer prevention, and important aspects regarding the wellbeing and care of people suffering from this disease.

VHIO invesigators joined together with other reasearchers and healthcare professionals in oncology at Vall d'Hebron to mark World Cancer Day 2020.

Aimed at patients suffering from colorectal cancer, their friends and families, and organized within the scope of the COLOSSUS and MoTriColor consortia an early evening session exploring the latest developments in the diagnosis and treatment of this tumor type, provided the perfect forum for interactive debate and a special Q&A session between experts in oncology and those effected and touched by this disease. This workshop was moderated by VHIO’s Rodrigo Dienstmann (PI: Oncology Data Science –ODysSEy- Group).

Aimed at patients, their families and friends, VHIO co-organized a special workshop to update on the very latest developments in the diagnosis and treatment of colorectal cancer.

Specifically organized for cancer patients, their families and friends, a virtual conference was organized by VHIO to discuss and update on new measures, protocols, and infrastructures in place as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Expert speakers included Josep Tabernero (VHIO’s Director), Enriqueta Felip (PI: Thoracic Tumors & Head and Neck Cancer Group), and Elena Garralda (PI: VHIO’s Early Clinical Drug Development Group, and Director of our Research Unit for Molecular Cancer Therapy of Cancer – UITM, CaixaResearch).

An HUVH-VHIO virtual conference aimed at patients, their families and caregivers in oncology, focused on how best to afront cancer in the COVID-19 era.

Launched back in 2016 by the Asociación Española Contra el Cáncer (Spanish Association against Cancer – AECC), and officially co-promoted in collaboration with leading organizations and Societies in oncology, World Cancer Research Day (WCRD) is held annually on 24 September to encourage the active involvement of citizens, institutions and leaders across various fields to support the advancement of research against cancer.

In celebration of WCRD 2020, the AECC organized a timely Dialogue Session focused on COVID-19 and the effects on cancer research as well as possible future implications for investigation. The discussion streamed live and counted on the presence of two renowned leaders in oncology, VHIO’s Director and Head of the Medical Oncology Department at Vall d’Hebron, Josep Tabernero, and Mariano Barbacid, AXA-CNIO Professor of Molecular Oncology, the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre, Madrid.

Moderated by Spanish journalist, Purificación Beltrán, and joined by the other invited panelists, Isabel Orbe, Director General of AECC’s Scientific Foundation, Marta Pujol, Director of Biomedical Research of AECC’s Scientific Foundation, as well as Belén Pastor, an AECC-supported cancer researcher at the Valencian Institute of Oncology (IVO), conversations also centered on the importance of increased investment in cancer science and clinical research, incentives to nurture, grow and support the careers of researchers in Spain, and the strengthening of national cancer planning.

AECC’s World Cancer Day 2020 streamed Dialogue Session (left to right): Isabel Orbe, Director General of AECC’s Scientific Foundation, Purificación Beltrán (Moderator), Mariano Barbacid, AXA-CNIO Professor of Molecular Oncology, Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), Marta Pujol, Director of Biomedical Research of AECC’s Scientific Foundation, Josep Tabernero, VHIO’s Director, and Belén Pastor, cancer researcher at the Valencian Institute of Oncology (IVO).

Pau Donés y Jarabe Contra el Cáncer. Regarding the amazing support that VHIO receives from individuals, we were all deeply saddened by the passing of Pau Donés, singer, songwriter, guitarist and leader of the renowned Spanish rock group Jarabe de Palo, who, having been diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2015, succumbed to his disease in June 2020.

Receiving treatment at our Vall d’Hebron University Hospital (HUVH), and cared for by our medical teams and specialists, particularly Elena Élez, Medical Oncologist and Clinical Investigator of our Gastrointestinal & Endocrine Tumors Group, he was a treasured patient, friend, and an ardent believer in the importance of research against cancer.

To raise funds for research at VHIO, he not only organized four sell-out concerts (see photo collage below), but also spoke out to raise awareness on and around cancer. As Pau Donés prepared for his death, he contacted journalist Jordi Évole to discuss his final fundraising initiative against cancer. Eso que tú me das –the title of one of his very last songs recorded with and his band, Jarabe de Palo, was to be the title of the documentary and very final interview, which broadcasted in cinemas across Spain, following his passing.

Directed by Ramón Lara and Jordi Évole, and produced by Producciones del Barrio y Atresmedia, proceeds will help to support new VHIO research projects aimed at solving cancer sooner.

One of Pau Donés’ fundraising concerts in 2018: Jarabe y Amigos Contra el Cáncer – in support of research at VHIO. Photo collage: Jarabe de Palo.


The Backstage ‘Let’s talk about sarcoma’ documentary launched online in October 2020. This project was initiated two years ago by the family of patient treated at Vall d’Hebron who passed away from a sarcoma. More specifically, Carlota Coloma, Executive Producer and Founder of 15LFilms led the documentary in the memory of her mother in order to offer support to other patients and families going through a similar experience by explaining how cancer researchers and clinical investigators are determinedly working together to develop more effective and precise therapies against this tumor type.

Funded through a dedicated crowdfunding initiative, as well as support received from the Spanish Association against Cancer (AECC), Spanish Society of Medical Oncology (SEOM), Spanish Association of those Affected by Sarcomas (AEAS), Spanish Group of Investigation into Sarcomas (GEIS), and the Mari Paz Jiménez Casado Foundation, this documentary was filmed at the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital and captured the day to day of professionals leading research and treatment against sarcomas, including VHIO’s César Serrano (PI: Sarcoma Translational Research Group) Ana Vivancos (PI: Cancer Genomics Group), Claudia Valverde, Medical Oncologist and Clinical Investigator of our Genitourinary, CNS Tumors, and Sarcoma Group (PI: Joan Carles), as well Manolo Pérez, a specialized surgeon in sarcoma at Vall d’Hebron.


The Movember movement against prostate cancer: much more than moustaches. Movember, celebrated globally throughout the month of November, was established back in 2003 by a few friends over a beer in a pub in Melbourne, Australia. Since then, this public awareness movement has gathered tremendous momentum worldwide. These collective efforts aim at reversing the burden of this disease which is the second most common cancer in men, with more than 1.3 million registered cases each year.

In celebration of Movember and to help raise funds for research against prostate cancer, a group of healthcare professionals and researchers from our Vall d’Hebron Barcelona Hospital Campus, set up its official VHIO-HUVH Movember Team page (pictured below), with Nicolas Herranz, an investigator of VHIO’s Prostate Cancer Translational Research Group, directed by Joaquin Mateo , as the captain for their 2020 campaign.

HUVH-VHIO Movember movement: raising awareness on the importance of research against prostate cancer.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, this dedicated VHIO educational program (established back in 2017) once again welcomed under-twelves from 3 local primary schools – Escolas Samaranch, Mireia, and Virolai, to meet our faculty, tour our laboratories and learn more about cancer biology and research.

The main objectives of this outreach program are to teach young and inquisitive minds about the importance of research in solving cancer sooner, how we at VHIO conduct our investigations, and to hopefully inspire some to ultimately become the next generation of cancer scientists.

During their half day visits our young visitors participated in junior masterclasses and hands-on activities to explain the origins and development of cancer, led and supervised by VHIO faculty. In view of the tremendous success and excellent feedback received from the students and teachers, we will continue to open our doors to all primary schools who wish to participate in this program, with dates already in the diary for 2021 – pandemic restrictions permitting.

VHIO's Schools and Science educational program.

The 2020 expansion of VHIO’s social media channels & platforms

In addition to VHIO’s comprehensive lay media program and the invited participation and presence of our researchers and clinical investigators across a broad range of communication channels, we continue to expand our outreach through news announcements, campaigns, images, and videos tailored to our social media platforms and respective target audiences.

Joining our established profiles and presence on LinkedIn and Twitter, we are pleased to announce that 2020 celebrated the launch of both VHIO’s Facebook and Instagram accounts.

To discover what we are excited about, our latest news, and other developments that are catching our attention elsewhere, we invite you to follow us, and join in on our ‘conversation’ today: