Two winners this year

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München, 06/27/2014

This year‘s Georg Heberer Award goes jointly to LMU’s Maximilian Gassenmeier and Ludwig Weckbach. The two medical researchers receive the accolade for work on the mechanisms of renal tumorigenesis and acute inflammation, respectively.

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität MünchenAs part of the celebrations of Founder’s Day at LMU Munich today, the annual Heberer Award for Medical Research, worth 20,000 euros, was formally presented to this year’s winners. Two young clinical researchers, Maximilian Gassenmeier and Ludwig Weckbach, share the 2014 prize. Gassenmeier is currently engaged on his doctoral thesis in the Laboratory of Tumor Immunology at Munich University Medical Center, and receives the award for two studies on the role of tumor stem cells in renal cell carcinoma. Weckbach, an intern in Medical Clinic I at Munich University Medical Center, is honored for his work on the recruitment of immune cells to sites of acute inflammation. The results reported by both researchers could provide leads to the development of new options for the treatment of patients with serious medical conditions.

The work of Maximilian Gassenmeier

Renal cell carcinomas account for about 3% of all malignant tumors. By the time of diagnosis 20-30% of patients have already developed metastatic tumors and metastases will subsequently appear in a further 20% of patients, including those in which the diseased kidney has been surgically removed. The prognosis for this last group of patients is particularly poor, and effective therapy in cases of renal cell carcinoma remains very challenging. This is the case largely because tumor stem cells, which can themselves initiate new tumors, play a major role both in the development of primary renal cell carcinomas and in facilitating the seeding of metastatic tumors. The fact that these stem cells are relatively insensitive to conventional anti-tumor drugs also contributes to the evolution of drug resistance and the resurgence of tumors after a period of apparently tumor-free survival. If long-term survival is to be achieved, tumor stem cells must be eradicated. However, this will require extensive biochemical characterization of the cells to allow them to be reliably identified and monitored. Gassenmeier’s study “CXC chemokine receptor 4 is essential for maintenance of renal cell carcinoma-initiating cells and predicts metastasis“, for which he won the award, shows that the stem cells that initiate renal cell carcinomas can be identified by virtue of the presence of the chemokine receptor CXCR4 on their surfaces. CXCR4 belongs to a set of proteins that recognize, bind and are activated by members of a class of small signal proteins called chemokines. Moreover, Gassenmeier’s work demonstrates that CXCR4 is essential for the survival of renal tumor stem cells. In principle, therefore it should be possible to specifically eliminate these cells with the aid of drugs that interfere with the function of CXCR4. Thus, the addition of a CXCR4 inhibitor to current treatment regimes for renal cell carcinoma could in the future markedly improve the effectiveness of therapeutic options available for the condition. In addition, Gassenmeier has shown that the level of CXCR4 production in the primary tumor is a valuable prognostic marker that allows one to subdivide patients into different risk groups and treat each with the best combination of drugs. Gassenmeier’s work on CXCR4 appeared in the journals Stem Cells and The Journal of Urology in 2013 and 2014.

Born in Erlangen in 1988, Maximilian Gassenmeier studied Medicine at LMU and began the work for his doctoral thesis on “Identification and characterization of renal cell carcinoma-initiating cells” in 2011 in the Laboratory of Tumor Immunology at the LIFE Center at Munich University Medical Center. He is currently a junior resident in the Department of Internal Medicine at Zürich University Hospital.

The work of Ludwig Weckbach

White blood cells (leukocytes) of various types are constantly coursing through the circulation on the lookout for pathogens. In humans a class of so-called polymorphonuclear neutrophils (PMNs) known as granulocytes are the most prominent type. These constitute a specialized arm of our immune defense system, and seek out sites of inflammation associated with bacterial infections, where they recognize and kill the foreign organisms. In a paper entitled “The cytokine midkine supports neutrophil trafficking during acute inflammation by promoting adhesion via beta2 integrins”, which won him a half-share in this year’s Heberer Award and appeared recently in the medical journal Blood, Weckbach investigated how PMNs exit the circulation and penetrate into acutely inflamed tissues. In particular, he elucidated the role played by a specific signal protein, known as midkine, in the process and characterized the molecular mechanism that underlies its function in this context. The findings could lead to new conceptual approaches to the treatment of diseases associated with chronic inflammation. The study was carried out as part of Weckbach‘s doctoral project at LMU’s Walter Brendel Center for Experimental Medicine, which received significant support from Collaborate Research Center (SFB) 914 on Trafficking of Immune Cells in Inflammation, Development and Disease and its Integrated Research Training Group.

Ludwig Weckbach was born in Augsburg in 1986. He studied Medicine at LMU and is currently a junior resident in Medical Clinic I at Munich University Medical Center. In addition to his clinical duties, Weckbach continues to devote himself to his research projects in the area of leukocyte migration in the context of inflammation processes.

The Heberer Award

The Georg Heberer Award, named after the surgeon Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Georg Heberer (1920-1999) and sponsored by the Chiles Foundation (Portland, Oregon), was presented for the first time in the year 2000. Heberer was Professor of Surgery and Director of the Department of Surgery at the Grosshadern Medical Campus in Munich. As a teacher and researcher, he was greatly respected for the breadth of his knowledge, and his surgical skills were internationally recognized. The Heberer Award is presented annually to researchers who have made notable contributions to surgery during the preceding year.

The Prize is sponsored by the Chiles Foundation, which was founded over 50 years ago with the aim of supporting medical research particularly in the field of cancer. The Foundation has endowed large institutes at Boston University and Stanford University, as well as the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute at Providence Medical Center in Portland.

In 1986, intensive scientific contacts and exchanges were initiated between the Department of Surgery at the Medical Center of the University of Munich, Harvard Medical School and Oregon Health & Science University. The generously endowed Georg Heberer Awards are intended to support and encourage talented junior researchers based at German universities to pursue scientific projects in cooperation with international collaborators.

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