IMBA – The year in review: 2017 saw awards, leading publications, and new biotech products
IMBA science news
Within just a few short weeks in 2017, four IMBA publications appeared in renowned scientific journals such as Nature and Cell. IMBA director Josef Penninger and Wittgenstein fellow Johannes Stadlmann described a new field that could prove beneficial in cancer research (Stadlmann, Taubenschmid et al., Nature, 2017). Glycoproteomics, the combination of proteins and sugar structures, can explain why the bioweapon ricin is so deadly and how pathogens gain access to cells. An comprehensive atlas of these “sugared” proteins will now be able to help researchers around the world to work together to explore this new field of research.
An “archive of mutations”, an extensive atlas of haploid stem cells clones that allow the behavior of genes to be studied more quickly and precisely, has piqued the interest of the international community of researchers. This unique collection was developed by team leaders Ulrich Elling and Josef Penninger (Elling, Wimmer et al., Nature, 2017).
Some of the fundamental discoveries could shed light on the complex biological system of the cell. IMBA senior team leader Julius Brennecke, who has dedicated his work to evolutionary defense strategies against genome parasites, and his team were able to describe an entirely new mechanism of genetic expression and explain how cells are able to override their own genome. (Andersen at al., Nature, 2017) For cancer research, it is also important to understand the mechanisms of cell division. Senior team leader Daniel Gerlich was able to solve at least one important mystery by visualizing how cells pack their genome into only one nucleus instead of several (Samwer et al., Cell, 2017).
Clinically relevant advances were made as well: The link between hormones and the onset of cancer had already been demonstrated in breast cancer by Penninger’s research group. It has now been described in a particularly aggressive form of lung cancer as well. The good news: a licensed drug that can be used in clinical studies is already available (Rao et al. Genes & Development, 2017).
Josef Penninger, scientific director at the IMBA, summarizes: “This year we were able to achieve some important scientific milestones at the IMBA. Thanks to open access platforms, researchers around the world can access these new technologies, making it possible to explore the sphere of influence of individual genes in even greater detail. We hope that this will enable us to make a contribution to biomedical progress around the world.”
Societal challenges and bioethical issues
A bioethics symposium initiated by researchers was held at the IMBA last April. Ethical issues, societal challenges, and a responsible approach to biotechnological innovations were discussed in an open, cross-disciplinary setting. Stem cell pioneer and IMBA vice-director Jürgen Knoblich invited international experts from a wide range of fields to participate in talks and panel discussions. Topics of debate included the general attitude in society regarding the possibilities and risks for the life sciences and the medicine of tomorrow, and how hopes and critical observations shape these attitudes.
As part of International Women’s Day, IMBA team leader Kikuë Tachibana was awarded the Walther Flemming medal for her research on what is probably the most mysterious cell in the human body, the egg cell. The molecular processes of the fertilized egg cell provide insight into how the “miracle of life” needs to be programmed so that one cell can develop into an entire organism. This is a “hot” research topic in stem cell biology at the moment, and it could shed new light on epigenetics as well. Sabrina Ladstätter, post-doctoral candidate in Tachibana’s laboratory, won two awards for her publications in Cell: the Life Science Research Award from the Austrian Society for Molecular Biosciences and Biotechnology (ÖGMBT), and the Best Paper Award from the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Beata Mierzwa from Daniel Gerlich’s research group also received the Life Science PhD Award from the ÖGMBT for her doctoral dissertation about a key-player protein in cell division. Daniel Gerlich, her mentor and senior team leader, was accepted into the renowned group of EMBO members, a network of leading European researchers in the field of molecular biology.
Value creation thanks to fundamental research
RNA biology at the IMBA laid the foundation for an innovative biotech tool, “SlamSeq”, which enables a precise measurement of when and how long certain genes are active in a cell. That is especially important when testing new active ingredients. Stefan Ameres and his team at the IMBA developed this new technology, which was licensed to Lexogen, a neighboring company. SlamSeq was launched on the market last summer and is now sold around the world. This product is particularly interesting for the pharmaceuticals industry, as it allows them to test new medications much more quickly and efficiently.
The know-how from the brain models, which were first cultivated in Knoblich’s laboratory at the IMBA in 2013, was also marketed globally for the first time in 2017. A unique tool kit was developed in collaboration with the Canadian biotech company Stem Cell Technologies. Researchers around the world can now access the methods developed in Vienna in order to investigate psychiatric and neurodegenerative defects in detail.
“Biomedical innovation requires both socially relevant scientific findings and a seamless application of these technologies in product development. The newest innovations marketed from our IMBA research findings demonstrate that fundamental research and value creation go hand in hand. Recently we were able to market a patent for an enzyme to a US-based biotech company, and further licenses are already in the pipeline,” said Michael Krebs, commercial director at the IMBA about some of the economic benefits of IMBA research in 2017.