ERC Advanced Grant awarded to leukaemia researcher - How the cells of the body’s ‘police force’ turn into cancer cells

Major success for Prof Hassan Jumaa: Director of the Institute of Immunology is awarded an ERC Advanced Grant worth €2.25 million. Over the next five years, the scientist will use this grant from the European Research Council to explore mechanisms at the B-cell antigen receptor in chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL).

Prof Hassan Jumaa
Prof Hassan Jumaa

Autonomous CLL-BCRs

Research Project

Role of autonomous B cellreceptor signalling and external antigen in the pathogenesis of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CCL)

Project Leader

Prof. Dr. Hassan Jumaa

Ammount of Funding

2.25 million Euro

Programme and Sponsor

Advanced Grant of the European Research Council (ERC)

Funding Period

2016 - 2021


Prof Hassan Jumaa
Institute of Immunlogy

Uncontrolled reproduction of B-lymphocytes

CLL is one of the most common types of blood cancer in adulthood. Symptoms of this life-threatening disease include swollen lymph nodes, extreme fatigue and a high susceptibility to infection. Stem cell transplantation is the only possible cure for CLL at present. Research work to be conducted with the ERC Advanced Grant funding seeks to facilitate new therapies with reduced side effects.

In his research, Prof Jumaa focuses on B-lymphocytes: these white blood cells fight pathogen agents as part of the body's defence mechanism. To do this, they form specific receptors on the surface of cells, enabling them to detect viruses or bacteria via the key-lock principle and to start producing antibodies. In patients with CLL, there is an uncontrolled reproduction of B-lymphocytes, which stop acting as the body's 'police force'.

Hassan Jumaa's research team investigates how B-lymphocytes are normally created from blood-forming cells. In the case of dysfunction, this process, controlled by signals from the B-cell receptor, can lead to a degeneration of cells - the consequences range from immunodeficiency to cancers such as CLL. However, the central question of what activates the B-cell receptor has yet to be answered.

Receptors activate each other

It was previously assumed that leukaemic B-cells receive their activation signals from the receptor's interaction with substances produced in the body. However, Jumaa's experiments have revealed that receptors on the surface of leukaemia cells constantly interact with each other: "Neighbouring receptors of the same cell appear to activate each other, sending signals that cause immune cells to convert into cancer cells. How this recognition takes place requires further study," the researcher stated.

With the ERC funding, Prof Jumaa aims to continue his observations in order to gain a better understanding of the immunobiology of CLL lymphocytes in connection with signalling from the B-cell receptor. In addition to transgenic animal models, Prof Jumaa's group works on a special cell line, developed for the purpose, in which receptors can be controlled and characterised individually.

"A profound understanding of the B-cell receptor signal path may help us to design molecules that suppress interaction between receptors, enabling us to stop cancer-promoting signals," stated Jumaa, describing a possible clinical use of his research. Such a therapy could be used at an early stage of the disease with reduced side effects.

Investigation of haematopoietic cells
Investigation of haematopoietic cells

Second Advanced Grant for Ulm University

Prof Jumaa, who completed his doctorate in Freiburg under Nobel prize winner Prof Georges Köhler and also gained his habilitation there, transferred to Ulm University because of its strong commitment to research in haematology. According to Jumaa, he benefits from Collaborative Research Centre 1074 "Experimental Models and Clinical Translation in Leukaemia" and from research work on CLL conducted at  Ulm University Hospital. The ERC Advanced Grant awarded to the Syrian-born professor will contribute to the further enhancement of this research area.

Hassan Jumaa is the second scientist at Ulm University to be awarded an ERC Advanced Grant. In 2013, the first grant worth €1.9 million was awarded to AIDS researcher Prof Frank Kirchhoff. The funding instrument is directed at established research leaders in their respective subject area. The grant is aimed at ground-breaking, high-risk projects. Of the almost 2,000 applications submitted, only around 270 were selected for funding.