DNA sensors detect "foreign" nucleic acids outside the cell nucleus – a tactic that is an
important mechanism especially for identifying viruses and certain bacteria. Andrea Ablasser
is investigating how different DNA sensors function.
The €60,000 Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize for
Young Researchers was awarded 2014 to Dr. Andrea Ablasser, an immunologist working
in Bonn. Ablasser, a medical doctor, received the prize because, as the Scientific Council of
the Paul Ehrlich Foundation stated, "her research shows how the immune system identifies
viruses and bacteria." The award will be presented today, the 160th birthday of Paul Ehrlich,
by Professor Harald zur Hausen in the Paulskirche, Frankfurt.
The mammalian immune system comprises both innate and adaptive immune defenses. The
innate immune defense system identifies invaders by their specific patterns or molecular
signatures. On initial contact, the innate immune system gathers information on the type and
context of the threat so that it can trigger an immune response that is specifically tailored to
the danger presented. Viruses are among the most common invaders. Viruses bring DNA or
RNA with them and they are difficult to identify because, beside these nucleic acids, they
otherwise carry very little "baggage". "Viral DNA is recognized as foreign mainly because it
appears at the wrong place in the cell," says Andrea Ablasser. "In other words, outside the cell
nucleus." The DNA's presence is "picked up" there by sensors that are specialized in detecting
DNA from different pathogens, e.g., viruses. Depending on which sensor responds, the
immune system receives initial information as to the identity of the invader.
Ablasser, who is currently Head of a Junior Research Group at the Institute of Clinical
Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Bonn, has worked on various DNA
sensors and has discovered a novel 2nd messenger molecule, which is being produced by one
of these DNA sensors. The young scientist has made a name for herself with numerous
One of the DNA sensors Ablasser has been working on activates a nanomachine that produces
suitable messengers for an appropriate immune response. This particular sensor reacts to
poxviruses and listeria. Another DNA sensor that Ablasser has discovered ensures that the
genes necessary for a specific antiviral immune response are activated. For instance, it reacts
to Epstein Barr viruses. A third DNA sensor recognizes a number of different viruses and
possibly also some bacteria. It informs neighboring cells about the imminent threat and is
helped in this job by an unconventional messenger that Ablasser has identified. This
unconventional messenger is passed through specialized channels into adjacent cells and puts
them on alert. These cells then prepare to fend off the attack even though they have not come
in direct contact with the invader. "The whole thing is not unlike an advance warning system,"
explains Ablasser. "That's how the infected cells prevent the invader from spreading."
The prize-winner's research has great significance for medicine. The better scientists
understand how the innate immune system gathers information about the type and context of a
threat, the more effective the treatments for autoimmune diseases. In autoimmune diseases,
the immune system does not distinguish correctly between "self" and "non-self". Ablasser's
research contributes to developing better vaccines for immunotherapy, for instance in the
treatment of cancer.
Short biography of Dr. Andrea Ablasser
Andrea Ablasser (born 1983) studied medicine at the Ludwig Maximilians University in
Munich, where she also completed her doctorate in 2010. In 2006 and 2008 she spent a
number of months at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester. Ablasser did her clinical
training at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich and spent parts of her practical year
at Oxford University and at Harvard Medical School. Ablasser has been doing research at the
Institute of Clinical Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Bonn, latterly
as Head of a Junior Research Group. She will soon take up a professorship at the Federal
Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL). Ablasser has already published 16 articles in highcaliber
journals, three of them in Nature in the last year alone. The Young Researcher prizewinner
was awarded the Jürgen Wehland Prize just a few weeks ago.