Antonin Morillon, winner of the ERC “Proof of concept” scholarship

Portrait Antonin Morillon

Antonin Morillon, Director of the Dynamic Genetic Information Unit, has just been awarded the ERC “Proof of concept” grant, a funding from the European Research Council. This prestigious grant will help him continue with his well-advanced research aimed to improve the early detection of prostate cancer without unnecessary biopsy.

Understanding prostate cancer
Prostate cancer is a deadly disease that affects about 400,000 men and that is the cause of 92,000 deaths a year in Europe. This type of cancer is intimately linked to aging. It develops slowly, from a normal cell that divides abnormally and proliferates uncontrollably. A mass of malignant cells, the tumor, forms and grows little by little. Tumor cells can reach nearby tissues and spread through the blood or lymphatic circulation. They spread to other parts of the body, such as lymph nodes near the prostate, bones or, later, more distant organs, such as the liver. They can later form metastases there. This whole process takes several years.

Complicated, multi-step screening
Prostate cancer screening is done by measuring the blood level of PSA (prostate-specific antigen) and by means of prostate palpation. However, these tests are not reliable enough to clearly diagnose prostate cancer. Indeed, once these steps have been completed, patients are then sent for a biopsy that reveals only 45% of positive cases. Moreover, nearly 10% of patients develop prostate infection after the biopsy. Once cancer is detected, different types of treatments are offered to patients. One of them is prostatectomy (surgery to remove the diseased prostate and the possibly affected lymph nodes), but it is not systematic. Increased patient monitoring is therefore necessary.
To date, no molecular biomarker that could easily detect such patients with non-aggressive (yet) dormant tumors has yet been determined. For this reason, a non-invasive diagnostic test and an active prostate cancer surveillance test would both be a real step forward in improving the quality of patient follow-up and care.

Antonin Morillon, Director of the Dynamic Genetic Information Unit and head of the Non-Coding RNA, Epigenetic and Genome Fluidity Team, proposes to validate a unique set of new “hidden” circulating biomarkers in order to develop a non-invasive, fast and robust urinary diagnostic test called PROSTATOR, which will focus on early detection of prostate cancer without unnecessary biopsy. Purpose of the research? To use the “hidden” part of the genome to find these new types of biomarkers. By using next-generation sequencing and innovative algorithms of artificial intelligence and bioinformatics, the team identified a set of uncatalogued sequences, which are significantly overexpressed in prostate cancer tumors.

This promising research project has just received the ERC “Proof of concept” grant: valued and prestigious financial assistance from Europe that directly enhances his potential to improve the diagnosis of patients with prostate cancer. Thanks to the ERC grant, Antonin Morillon will be able to go further and implement the PROSTATOR.

How does the PROSTATOR work?

During his first visit to the urologist or during active clinical monitoring, urine in the tube will be taken from the patient following the prostate examination. The doctor will send it directly to a laboratory to perform the PROSTATOR molecular test and to subsequently decide whether the patient needs to be scheduled for biopsy. This will prevent unnecessary biopsies, reducing the risk of psychological and physiological stress for patients, while helping us better control the associated costs borne by health systems. This test has the advantage of being fast and economical. “I am very proud and honored to have been awarded the ERC POC, because, apart from the fact that it is the financial assistance that we needed, it is also a true recognition of the efforts of my entire team. It rewards our work on transferring our basic research expertise to clinical application. This is really the starting point that will let us expand on our work and consider the creation of a start-up in the short term. The fact that Europe is so confident in our project is an encouragement to continue this process,” points out the researcher.