Science that makes a difference: „Because I love, what I do”

(01.09.2020) Dr. Eleni M. Tomazou, PhD, heads the research group "Epigenome-based precision medicine" at the St. Anna Children's Cancer Research Institute. On the occasion of the Childhood Cancer Awareness Month September, she talks about what motivates her and why it is so important to have an institute that investigates childhood cancer.


What exactly are you working on?

Together with my team, I am doing research on Ewing sarcoma. This is a malignant tumor that develop in the bones and soft tissue of children and adolescents. Especially when metastases have formed, this type of cancer is difficult to combat. A lot of research is therefore still needed to improve treatment.

Unlike those in adults, tumors in children have only a few gene mutations. We are therefore investigating epigenetic changes, i.e. the information surrounding the genes. For example, we can study the tumor genetic material circulating in the blood (cell-free DNA), enabling us to conclude on epigenetic patterns. In a group of about one hundred patients, we were able to classify the tumor from the epigenetic status of the cell-free DNA and the size of the released DNA fragments. We hypothesize that this also allows us to detect a relapse of the disease earlier. We still have to test this in a study with a larger patient group.

In parallel, we are working on many other projects. Among other things, we are using the new method of "single cell analysis" to investigate the heterogeneity, i.e. diversity, of cells within a tumor. We are analyzing how their composition changes over the course of the disease and where we could start with therapies.

What motivates you to work in science?

Scientists are a bit like artists. We always have science with us, develop ideas and read what others are doing. As soon as we see results, it is especially exciting. It fertilizes our work. And there is always something new to discover. I love what I do and don't see it as work in a narrow, heteronomous sense. I have many opportunities to set my own goals and work towards them.

But of course there are ups and downs. It happens that I work on a research project, believe in it, but then see that the hypothesis does not prove to be true. It is important not to be too emotional. If I see that this idea doesn't get me anywhere, then I have to be flexible and try something else.

Do you ever manage to "switch off" and leave the lab behind?

No, actually I can't do that. My husband is also a scientist. Even at dinner we talk about cancer research. On the one hand, I sometimes wish I could "switch off" completely. Because work has a great influence on my private life. On the other hand, it is also very productive the way it is. I have someone I trust, with whom I can discuss and from whom I get an honest answer.

What challenges have you already mastered?

When I started here, it was a real challenge to get any tumor tissue I could examine. Ewing's sarcoma is rare, so I had to motivate centers all over Europe to work together.
In science it often takes two to three years to get results. You only have this ambition, if you really like what you do.
Once, at another institute, I had already decided to switch from research to clinical diagnostics. In retrospect, however, it was probably not because of the science itself. The environment plays a big role. Here at the institute I feel very comfortable and have a great working environment. I am grateful for having been given this opportunity.

What is so special about St. Anna Children´s Cancer Research Institute?

Vienna is one of the places in Europe where it was recognized early on, that there is a need for a separate institute to research childhood cancer. If we really want to improve the chances of survival of affected children, we have to focus specifically on the origin and the pathogenesis of cancer in children. In this way, we can achieve a lot with our research.

In your personal experience, is it more difficult for women to be successful in science?

I think it is simply a bit more difficult for practical reasons. Between 30 and 40 is the time to push your career. At the same time, most of us also have children during this period. On the one hand, there is still a certain expectation in society that women have to take care of bringing up children. On the other hand, I personally did not feel that this would have impaired my professional development. Thanks to an Elise-Richter scholarship I got the support I needed when I was pregnant. In addition, Austria has a good social system with kindergartens and much more. All this has made my life easier. So I could have a child and start my own research group at the same time.

All further research portraits will be published online during the childhood cancer awareness month of September on our websites:

Eleni M. Tomazou, PhD

Epigenome expert Eleni M. Tomazou, PhD, has been working at St. Anna Children´s  Cancer Research Institute since 2012. Since January 2018, she has headed the research group "Epigenome-based precision medicine for pediatric sarcomas". For her excellent scientific work Tomazou received an Elise-Richter-Scholarship, with which the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) supports outstandingly qualified female scientists over a period of six years.

Tomazou completed her studies in molecular and cell biology at the University of Glasgow. During her studies, she worked for one year at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the University of Heidelberg. This was followed by a doctoral thesis in biology at the University of Cambridge and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, a postdoctoral position at the Harvard Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, and a scientific-diagnostic position in the field of HLA typing at the American Red Cross.

For her research in the field of epigenetics of Ewing's sarcoma, Tomazou received numerous prizes, awards and grants, among others from the Vienna Science, Research and Technology Fund (WWTF), the Austrian National Bank and the Austrian Science Fund FWF.

Tomazou is a reviewer for various renowned journals such as Nature Medicine, Nature Genetics or Cell Reports. She is also a member of the Scientific Committee of the Congress of the European Society for Medical Oncology 2019 and 2020.

Ewing sarcoma and epigenetics

Ewing's sarcoma is a very aggressive bone tumor in children and adolescents. The long-term survival rate is only 50 to 60 percent. The goal of the scientists at St. Anna Children's Cancer Research Institute is to cure significantly more patients affected in the long term. Current chemotherapies have considerable side effects that impair the quality of life in the long term. Nevertheless, they unfortunately do not help all patients by a long way.

Various approaches are being pursued to better understand the development of this tumor and to develop new therapies based on this knowledge. One of them is the investigation of epigenetic mechanisms that play a major role in Ewing's sarcoma. Epigenetics is considered the link between environmental influences and genes: It helps determine under which circumstances which gene is switched on and when it becomes silent again, so that different cells are created. Epigenetics is a kind of memory for genes and determines which are used and which are switched off.

Press Release:
Press Release _ Researcher Portrait Eleni M. Tomazou PhD_St.AnnaKinderkrebsforschung
Pressemitteilung _ Porträt der Forscherin Dr. Eleni M. Tomazou_St. Anna Kinderkrebsforschung