TUM Ambassador Poul Sorensen.

Dr. Poul Sorensen was already drawn to research as a student. He was driven by the idea of making new discoveries. It led to several breakthroughs in cancer research – also inspired by the collaboration with TUM scientists (Photo: University of British Columbia).

Alumni doing research
Cancer Researcher Prof. Dr. Poul Sorensen
“What Has Always Driven Me Is the Urge to Make New and Impactful Discoveries”
03. Dec 2023
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TUM Ambassador Professor Dr. Poul Sorensen had already achieved significant breakthroughs in childhood cancer research when he came to Munich from Vancouver for a collaborative research project with TUM scientists. Since then, he has been collaborating with TUM researchers to develop more and better medications for children with cancer.
A few years ago, Prof. Dr. Poul Sorensen received an email from a mother in the USA. In it, she shared the story of her daughter, who was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of brain tumor at the age of 16. Despite two surgeries and numerous rounds of radiation therapy, the tumor persisted, causing severe headaches and nausea.
As chemotherapy was deemed unpromising by doctors, the parents had feared the worst. However, a newly approved medication was mentioned, prescribed to the daughter, resulting in the rapid shrinking of the tumor. The mother proudly told Dr. Sorensen that her daughter had just finished at the top of her high school graduating class, and had been accepted to university.


This new medication is the outcome of Poul Sorensen’s research on an unusual gene mutation that prompts tumor cells to produce cancer-causing enzymes. The researcher identified the corresponding signaling pathway and discovered how to block it. Poul Sorensen, who has two children himself, reflects on receiving the email from the mother, stating, “Getting that email from a mother telling me how our discovery saved her daughter’s life was perhaps the most beautiful moment in my career so far.”

“Receiving the Email from This Mother Was Perhaps the Best Moment in My Career so Far.”

Prof. Poul Sorensen

Sorensen is a medical doctor specializing in the molecular pathology of childhood cancers. However, medicine was not his goal when he began his studies. “Back then, I chose a subject that was a combination of chemistry and physics. What always drove me was the urge to make discoveries,” says Sorensen. Even at that time, he was interested in how body cells communicate with each other through their outer membranes.

As a postdoctoral fellow at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, he then realized how little we know about the biology and genetics of childhood cancer. The breakthrough that led to the drug developed by Sorensen more than 20 years later occurred just this time, when Dr. Sorensen returned to Canada to start his own research program. “We were researching an aggressive form of childhood cancer called a sarcoma, and finally discovered that this unusual gene mutation plays a role not only in this type of cancer, but also in at least 25 other types of cancer that are also relevant in adults,” says Sorensen.


The scientist has been working with TUM researchers in his “Sorensen Lab” at the University of British Columbia (UBC) for years. At a congress in Berlin, he met the pediatric oncologist and immunologist Prof. Stefan Burdach, who was until his recent retirement Professor of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at TUM – a connection that brought him and his family to Munich for a year-long research stay in 2016. “At that time, the great potential of immunotherapy to target tumors became increasingly clear,” says Poul Sorensen.

At that time, TUM was already very advanced in this form of therapy, which involves trying to find specific proteins that identify cancer cells, so to speak, and targeting them with the body’s own immune system. “My time in Munich taught me a lot in this field. Back in Vancouver, I focused a big part of my laboratory on the search for specific target proteins for immunotherapy,” says Poul Sorensen. It wasn’t long before he found a protein that protects cells from oxidative stress in some types of cancer, not just childhood cancers, allowing them to enter the bloodstream and form metastases throughout the body. “That pushed me to get even more involved in immunotherapy, thanks to my work with TUM colleagues.”


 At the same time, Sorensen and the TUM team led by Stefan Burdach continued to work on a discovery they had already made in 2016/17: together they had discovered that the presence of a certain protein is associated with poorer treatment outcomes in several types of childhood cancer. They then investigated the reason – and found the answer when Sorensen was a guest at TUM for a second time in 2022: in an article that they finally published in the journal Blood, they described how the protein helps blood cancer cells to switch to a kind of energy-saving mode when they are threatened by low nutrient or oxygen levels.

They are currently working on an article that will show how bone cancer cells spread in the body by sending small packets of RNA and proteins forward in so-called extracellular vesicles. “They are like scouts that go out and create small niches into which the tumor cells can then go by switching off the immune system there,” explains Sorensen.


Poul Sorensen enthuses when he talks about the collaboration. “It’s a symbiotic relationship: I benefit from the knowledge in the field of immunotherapy, while my colleagues at TUM, including Prof. Burdach, Jürgen Ruland, and Roland Rad with whom I work in various research projects, can hopefully learn from me about our research into signaling pathways that cancer cells use.” However, the exchange is not only a benefit at work, but also on a personal level. “My family and I have always enjoyed our time in Munich very much and I have found great friends in Stefan Burdach and his team and my other colleagues there,” says Poul Sorensen, who shows a picture during the interview in which he and Prof. Burdach can be seen on vacation together in Denmark.

In 2023, TUM President Thomas F. Hofmann awarded Poul Sorensen the honorary title of TUM Ambassador in recognition of their many years of collaboration. This award means a lot to the researcher: “It shows me that I have a second scientific home that is very valuable to me,” he says. The title strengthens his connection to TUM and Munich and motivates him to do even more for student exchange between TUM and UBC.

Stefan Burdach and Poul Sorensen on the beach in Denmark.

Poul Sorensen is now friends with TUM Professor Stefan Burdach: The photo shows them on vacation together in Denmark (Photo: Private).

TUM Ambassador Poul Sorensen

Dr. Poul Sorensen (Photo: University of British Columbia).

Prof. Dr. Poul Sorensen

TUM Ambassador 2023

Dr. Poul Sorensen is a molecular pathologist and cancer biologist who specializes in the genetics and biology of childhood cancers. He heads the Sorensen Lab at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, where he also holds the prestigious Asa and Kashmir Johal Chair in Pediatric Cancer Research. He is also Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UBC.

Poul Sorensen’s research initially focused on signaling pathways that are activated in childhood cancer and breast cancer. As a new Professor in the early 1990s, he made a discovery that led to the development of an important anti-tumor drug, which was approved worldwide in 2018.

After his research stay at TUM, Sorensen has devoted himself more to immunotherapy research from 2016 and on. He combines proteomic (protein identification) and biochemical approaches to identify proteins that are specifically enriched in human tumors to protect tumor cells from different stresses of the tumor microenvironment, but are minimally expressed in normal tissues. This should enable more targeted therapies that are better tolerated, especially by children.

The collaboration between TUM and UBC has not only led to significant publications, but also to three successful international fellowships for researchers from TUM and UBC. In 2023, TUM President Thomas F. Hofmann awarded Prof. Poul Sorensen the honorary title of TUM Ambassador.