A decade in review
Funding success and awards
17 European Research Council (ERC) grants, one of the biggest recognitions for researchers, have been secured by IMBA-researchers. In total, 75% of IMBA´s faculty is currently running on at least one ERC grant. Three Wittgenstein Prizes, that are awarded to scientists for their outstanding scientific achievements and their role for the international scientific community, went to IMBA (Dickson, 2005; Knoblich, 2009; Penninger, 2014). In addition, IMBA founding director Josef Penninger received the coveted "Innovator Award" worth 7.4 million US dollars (5.68 million euros) for his research into the involvement of RANKL, a protein that is important for bone metabolism, and the development of breast cancer. Currently, several research projects at IMBA are also funded by the Human Frontier Science Programme Organisation (HFSPO), which is one of the most renowned international funding bodies in the field of life sciences - with a focus on international cooperation and particularly innovative and creative research approaches.
In 2018 the Houska Prize, which is the biggest Austrian private prize for industry related basic research, was awarded to groupleader Stefan Ameres.
IMBA Director Jürgen Knoblich and his laboratory are also part of the international LifeTime consortium, where groundbreaking technologies are the core of creating new therapies for personalized prevention, and early detection.
Understanding the fundamental principles of life
Cell division is a complex and critical process: if it is not controlled correctly, the cells can degenerate and, in the worst case, cancer can result. In 2016, Daniel Gerlich's research group at IMBA succeeded in deciphering an important molecular puzzle of cell division. For the first time, a "surface-active" property of proteins was demonstrated: The protein Ki-67 wraps itself around the chromosomes and helps chromosomes to slide past each other during the division process and so they don´t stick together.
Kikue Tachibana and her lab could gain new insights on molecular mechanisms of the oocyte-to-zygote transition, the process that converts an egg, by fertilization, into a one-cell embryo that can develop into an entire organism.
Over the past 10 years, Julius Brennecke and his team have gained important insights into a special defense system that protects cells against genome-parasites. So-called "piRNAS" are very small RNA sequences that protect our genome from mutations by blocking “jumping genes", or transposons. These mechanisms help us to understand the host-parasite conflict that also occurs on the DNA level shaping evolutionary processes. For their formation and function, the piRNAS circumvent conventional signaling pathways – retroviruses, which can trigger a large number of different diseases, including tumours, neurological diseases and immunodeficiencies, are assumed to use similar strategies.
"To cure diseases, we must first understand them," says IMBA founding director Josef Penninger, who in 2018 accepted the call of the University of British Columbia to run its LifeScience Institute and at the same time continues to run his laboratory at IMBA. Over the past 10 years, he and his team have been able to develop important relationships for cancer research, such as the connection between bone metabolism and the hormone system through a signaling pathway called RANKL, and how this promotes the development of cancer in BRCA mutations. This finding is groundbreaking for a preventive therapy for high-risk patients who are carriers of the BRCA mutation - the first clinical studies are already underway. Researchers at IMBA have also been able to uncover surprising connection between sex hormones and lung cancer. A drug already approved for bone atrophy and bone metastases could now also be used to prevent a particularly aggressive form of lung cancer. In addition, IMBA researchers have discovered a completely new way of fighting autoimmune diseases and cancer. A protein called BH4, which is actually known from neurobiology as a component of 'happiness hormones' oxytocine and serotonine, appears to play a key role in the immune defence of T cells and therapy options are broad - from autoimmune diseases, asthma and allergies to cancer.
Comprehensive stem cell initiative at IMBA
In 2013, Jürgen Knoblich and his team at IMBA published a landmark paper describing a method for in vitro cultivation of 3D brain-like structures, so called cerebral organoids (Lancaster et al., Nature 2013). These so-called brain organoids contain several different types of nerve cells and their anatomical features closely resembled those of mammalian brains, demonstrating a remarkable self-organizing capacity. Cerebral organoids mimic early human brain development in a surprisingly precise way, allowing neurodevelopmental studies and targeted analyses of human neurological disorders that are otherwise not possible.
Thanks to additional special public funding, IMBA´s role in stem cell and organoid research could be further developed.
Since 2016, the IMBA Stem Cell Core Facility (ISCCF) supports research groups in Austria and abroad that use stem cells in a variety of contexts, from brain and heart development to disease modeling and organoid research. The facility links with academics and clinicians to provide expert service in cutting edge technologies and disseminate knowledge by training the next generation of stem cell researchers. In 2017, a biobank of revertible, mutant embryonic stem cells called Haplobank was made available to all scientists and represents the largest ever library of hemizyogous mutant embryonic stem cell lines to date.
Currently seven groups at IMBA working on a wide variety of stem cell biology topics. The Knoblich lab works on the development of brain organoids in order to be able to investigate diseases such as epilepsy, autism, schizophrenia or brain tumors in more detail. In 2018, the world's first blood-vessel organoids were developed at IMBA, which now make it possible to investigate common diseases such as diabetes directly on human tissue. At the same time, labs at IMBA are working on heart-organoids, gastro and intestinal organoids, and blastoids.
In addition to the societal impact of basic research, biomedical innovations also need an ideal transition into product development. The latest marketing of IMBA research results proves that basic research and value creation go hand in hand.
Group leader Dr. Stefan Ameres and his team at IMBA developed an innovative technology called SLAMseq, allowing a tracking of gene expression in high temporal resolution – by tagging RNA. SLAMseq was licensed by the Vienna- based biotech company lexogen and has been on the market as labkit since September 2017. This technology allows new drugs to be tested much faster, cheaper and more efficiently. In the emerging field of cancer immunotherapy, knowledge gained at IMBA forms the basis for a novel therapy where the immune response can be regulated by modulating a protein called CBL-B. Viennese biotech company Apeiron biologics licensed this new technology to develop a novel cancer drug.
Also, in the field of organoid technology, basic research is being translated: Canadian company licensed IMBA´s cerebral organoid technology for the rights to develop products for cerebral organoid culture to serve the international research community.
In 2019, the biotech company a:head was founded as a spin-off of the IMBA in order to develop the next generation therapeutics for the treatment of brain disorders based on human cerebral organoids.
"In addition to its societal impact, biomedical innovations also require an optimal transition of technologies into product development. The recent success stories prove that basic research and added value go hand in hand ," says Michael Krebs, Commercial Director at IMBA.