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Meet the Researcher: Dr. Joaquin Arribas

By BCRF | February 16, 2016

BCRF investigator and team focus on metastatic breast cancer research

Dr. Joaquin Arribas, a BCRF investigator since 2007, serves as the director of preclinical research at the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO) in Barcelona, Spain. The research institute, which recently moved to a brand new building, sits on the campus of one of Barcelona’s leading hospitals. 

With a research institute just steps from the hospital. Dr. Arribas and his team have the perfect opportunity to integrate scientific discoveries made at the lab bench to patient care administered at the bedside. The team leads numerous first-in-human phase I clinical trials for patients with metastatic breast cancer, and what they learn from the patient they take back to the lab to inform future work to find the answers to cancer.

New research building at Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (2015, courtesy of VHIO)

Dr. Arribas’s current BCRF-funded research is aiming to understanding cancer cell ‘senescence’. All healthy cells divide and replicate themselves to maintain healthy tissue, much like skin cells grow and replace dead cells that are sloughed off or damaged by a sunburn. After a time, healthy cells stop dividing and eventually die in a very controlled way called “apoptosis” that keeps the tissue healthy.  

Cancer cells ignore those same signals and continue to live and divide. Dr. Arribas has found that some of these cells do not die when they stop dividing; They become “senescent” – or quiet, and may be undetectable. This is particularly common in HER2+ breast cancers.

Joaquin Arribas laboratory and staff at Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (2015, courtesy of VHIO)

Senescent cells reside within and next to tumors. Even though they are quiet, they can be very busy providing nutrients and other things needed to fuel the growth of nearby cancer cells. Dr. Arribas and his team are trying to understand all the steps that make a cell senescent and identify places in this process that can be targets to develop new drugs to kill senescent cells. In a sense, by killing the senescent cells they could cut off the fuel line that is feeding the cancer cells. Recently, they discovered one molecule called ADAM17 inside senescent cells that may be the ideal target. Over the next few years Dr. Arribas and his team hope to begin testing new drugs to inhibit ADAM17 and kill the senescent cells feeding many HER2+ breast cancers.