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Understanding the complex biology of AHR activation in cancer

Project description

AHR: pro or con cancer?

The aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) is a transcription factor that controls key biological processes and becomes activated by the binding of a ligand. Its role in antitumour immunity seems to be context dependent, demonstrating both promoting and suppressive effects. This questions its suitability as an anticancer drug target and necessitates further investigation into its mechanism of action. Funded by the European Research Council, the CancAHR project will investigate the downstream effects of AHR activation and delineate its implication in cancer. Results will have clinical projections as they may be used to stratify cancer patients and design specific therapeutic interventions.


The aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) is a critical regulator of tumor progression by modulating both tumor cell intrinsic malignant properties as well as anti-tumor immunity. However, depending on the context, the AHR can exert either tumor-promoting or tumor-suppressive effects, thus limiting its potential as a drug target. To exploit the AHR for cancer therapy a comprehensive understanding of its activation and biological outcomes is necessary. The opposing effects of the AHR in cancer likely stem from the complexity of its activation and biological functions, which are cell type-, ligand-, and context-specific. Moreover, recent results from our laboratory suggest that nutritional stress conditions also affect AHR activity. The detection of AHR activation in tissues mainly relies on the quantitation of AHR target gene expression. However, until recently, the context specificity of AHR target gene expression had impeded systematic investigation of AHR activity across human cancers. Our team has developed a pan-tissue AHR signature that detects AHR activity irrespective of cell type or ligand, and enables the analysis of the biological functions mediated through AHR activation. The combination of the AHR signature with iterative cycles of computational biology analyses and laboratory experimentation puts us in a unique position to investigate AHR activation and its downstream effects. CancAHR will hence systematically delineate how the AHR is activated in cancer, why AHR activation is cell type-specific, and which AHR downstream mediators drive clinical outcomes. The identification of the molecular mechanisms underlying the diverse outcomes of AHR activation in cancer will enable (i) the identification of patients, in which AHR activation contributes to clinical outcome; (ii) the development of clinical interventions tailored to the specific mechanisms of AHR activation; and (iii) stratification of patients to precision therapies modulating AHR activity.


Net EU contribution
€ 1 999 925,00
Im neuenheimer feld 280
69120 Heidelberg

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Baden-Württemberg Karlsruhe Heidelberg, Stadtkreis
Activity type
Research Organisations
Other funding
€ 0,00