ERC starting grants for projects on stress responses in mitochondria and Jewish translations
FRANKFURT. Once again, researchers at Goethe University were successful in the competition for the prestigious starting grants from the European Research Council (ERC): Dr Christian Münch from the Institute of Biochemistry II at the Faculty of Medicine, and Dr Iris Idelson-Shein from the Seminar for Jewish Studies and the Martin-Buber Chair for Jewish Thought and Philosophy, each received an “ERC Starting Grant.” In this program, the ERC supports excellent researchers in the first five years of their independent careers with a total of 1.5 million euro.
Dr Christian Münch is a biochemist and studies mitochondria, which produce energy for cells. There are up to 2,000 of these tiny power plants in each cell of the body. They are subject to strict quality controls in order to ensure faultless functioning. Christian Münch is particularly interested in a mechanism that is turned on upon misfolding of mitochondrial proteins – known as the “unfolded protein response.” The molecular details of this stress response are poorly understood to date, especially in humans; particularly in regards to its effects on mitochondria themselves and on other areas of cells or neighbouring cells. What signals are prompted by the stress responses and how these are regulated are equally unknown. Christian Münch wants to investigate these open questions.
This project, now supported by the European Research Council, is also highly relevant from a bio-medical perspective. “In numerous diseases, including major diseases like cancer or neurodegeneration, the functioning of the mitochondria is disrupted. In some cases, misfolded mitochondrial proteins are directly responsible for the clinical picture,” explains Christian Münch. Of particular interest to the young researcher is the question of how already-stressed cells communicate with their environment. “I’m convinced there are overarching systems that coordinate the various quality control mechanisms and warn neighbouring cells of imminent danger.” With the ERC project, he hopes to make pioneering discoveries in this area.
Christian Münch has headed an Emmy-Noether research group at the Institute of Biochemistry II at the Faculty of Medicine of the Goethe University since December 2016. Before that he was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University in Boston (USA). He obtained his PhD at the University of Cambridge in England in 2011.
Formative translations in Jewish garb
The project of the historian Dr Iris Idelson-Shein deals with Jewish texts that came about as translations from other languages from the sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century. These translations played a crucial role in shaping the culture, literature and history of European Jews in the early modern period. Most Jews in this period were unable to read texts in non-Jewish languages, so that their access to European cultural developments depended almost completely on these kinds of translations.
While translations have been met with great interest by historians of European history in recent decades, they have been largely neglected by historians of early modern Jewry. “So far, no attempt has been made to investigate the totality of Jewish translations in the early modern period,” states Iris Idelson-Shein, ”so that their scope, geographic distribution, development, and sources are largely unknown.”
This scholarly lacuna stems, in part, from the daunting nature of this wildly versatile literature, which drew on sources in different languages, from different genres, spaces and periods. In addition, Jewish authors often presented their translations as original work in order to cloak them in Jewish garb. To approach this rich and deceptive body of texts requires a great familiarity with various literary systems (Jewish and non-Jewish), the command of several languages, and a combination of historical, literary, cultural and other research methods. Idelson-Shein will therefore recruit a multi-lingual and interdisciplinary group of young researchers. The goal is to identify the non-Jewish body of texts that were formative in creating modern Judaism.
Iris Idelson-Shein studied history and philosophy at Tel Aviv University and received her doctorate there in 2011. She is now a research associate at the Martin-Buber Chair for Jewish Thought and Philosophy, and visiting lecturer at the Seminar for Jewish Studies at Goethe University.
Hereditary angioedema is a chronic disorder that can sometimes be life-threatening. Now, a new drug therapy has been successfully tested in an international study headed by the University Hospital Frankfurt.
Hereditary angioedema (HAE) is a rare genetic disorder characterized by recurrent painful swellings of the skin and mucous membranes. Without treatment, patients’ quality of life is noticeably compromised: Angioedema may not only be disfiguring; in the gastrointestinal tract it may lead to severe abdominal colic ad in the upper airways it can even be fatal if left untreated. The frequency of angioedema attacks is unpredictable and varies from patient to patient; swellings may occur up to several times a week. The disorder affects about one to two in a hundred thousand people.
A new drug has been developed to help prevent attacks of hereditary angioedema and at the same offer the patients a convenient administration. It has now been investigated in an international study performed at over 26 university facilities in Europe, Canada and Australia. The results were clear: the drug is highly effective with regard to attack prevention and improvement in quality of life while offering a convenient oral administration. Dr. Emel Aygören-Pürsün, specialist in internal medicine at the Division of Oncology, Hematology and Hemostaseology at the Department for Children and Adolescents of the University Hospital Frankfurt, served as the principle investigator of the study. “Hereditary angioedema is a condition that may be associated with lifelong impairment. With this fundamentally new development, we may reduce HAE- attacks and consistently improve our patients’ quality of life,” explains Dr. Emel Aygören-Pürsün. The HAE competence centre at University Hospital Frankfurt is one of the leading institutions nationwide for patient care and the clinical development of therapies for hereditary angioedema. Professor Thomas Klingebiel, Director of the Department for Children and Adolescents, underlines the significance of the results: “Pioneering patient care and cutting-edge clinical research – these are what University Hospital Frankfurt stand for.” The results of the study have now been published in the renowned New England Journal of Medicine.
Genetic disorder leads to uncontrolled swellings
For most cases of hereditary angioedema, the underlying cause is a congenital deficiency or dysfunction of what is known as C1-inhibitor. As a result of C1-inhibitor deficiency, plasma levels of bradykinin increase, a peptide which locally increases the permeability of the smallest blood vessels.
The central role of bradykinin in the development of angioedema attacks is well established for hereditary angioedema. Attacks of angioedema in patients with hereditary angioedema are related to the action of bradykinin, whose generation is closely linked to another plasma protein, called kallikrein. If kallikrein is active, then bradyinin generation is the result. The inhibition of kallikrein should therefore be a suitable measure for prophylaxis of angioedema attacks.
Therapeutic breakthrough in the form of capsules
So far, the prevention of angioedema attacks in hereditary angioedema was bound to medication that required injections. Although drugs were also available as tablets, these proved either ineffective or were not licensed in many countries. In addition, some of them led to severe side effects and could not be administered to children or during pregnancy.
The new drug BCX7353 tested in the study is a synthetic small molecule that acts as a specific kallikrein inhibitor and is administered as capsules. The aim of the development was to achieve an effective prophylaxis with the distinct advantages of an oral administration yet without the side effects of the oral preparations used previously.
During the study, 77 patients were randomized to groups of four different dose levels or placebo. They took the respective dose once daily for 28 days. The patients noted in their diaries the frequency, localization and severity of the attacks; quality of life was recorded at the beginning and the end of the study using a validated questionnaire. Changes in the frequency of the attacks were investigated, as were the side effects from the treatment and the impact on patients’ quality of life.
The results were positive: With a daily dose of 125 mg and higher, a significant reduction of angioedema attacks was demonstrated. Patients who took 125 mg of BCX7353 per day even experienced a reduction in the frequency of their attacks of almost 75 percent compared to placebo; over 40 percent of patients in that dose group remained completely free of attacks during the study. Also the increase in quality of life was most evident for the 125 mg dose; in addition, not only the number of peripheral attacks was reduced in this group but also those in the gastrointestinal tract. Moreover, the side effects of this dose ranged mild.
Overall, the study was able to clearly corroborate the efficacy of BCX7353 and at the same time provide information about the ideal dosage and tolerability of the new drug. Further studies will now be necessary to verify the efficacy and safety with its long-term administration.
Publication: Aygören-Pürsün, E., et al, Oral Plasma Kallikrein Inhibitor for Prophylaxis in Hereditary Angioedema, New England Journal of Medicine 2018;379:352-62. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1716995.
Further information: Dr. Emel Aygören-Pürsün MD, Internal Medicine and Hemostaseology, Division of Oncology, Hematology and Hemostaseology, Department for Children and Adolescents, University Hospital Frankfurt, Tel. +49 (0)69- 63 01 63 12 / 63 01 63 44, firstname.lastname@example.org
Range of applications for silicones on the increase thanks to modular, combinable building blocks
FRANKFURT. Silicones are synthetic materials used in a broad range of applications. Thanks to the stability of the silicon-oxygen bond, they are resistant to chemicals and environmental influences and also harmless from a physiological point of view. As a result, silicones contribute to making everyday life easier in almost all areas. In the Journal of the American Chemical Society, chemists at Goethe University Frankfurt have now described a new way to produce long-awaited silicon building blocks in a simple and efficient way.
The broad spectrum of applications for silicones ranges from medical implants and cosmetics to hydraulic oils and sealants to corrosion protection – an important topic in view of global corrosion damage to the tune of about US$ 3.3 trillion per year. To optimize silicon-based synthetic materials for specific applications, made-to-measure chlorosilane building blocks are required in order to produce and crosslink the long-chain polymers. This influences, for example, the material’s viscosity and flow properties. Completely new challenges are emerging in the area of 3D printing, with the aid of which products such as individualized running shoes can be manufactured.
Since 1940, the Müller-Rochow Direct Process has formed the backbone of the silicone industry. In this process, elementary silicon is converted with methyl chloride into methylchlorosilanes at high temperatures and pressures in the presence of a copper catalyst. The working group led by Professor Matthias Wagner at the Institute of Inorganic and Analytical Chemistry of Goethe University Frankfurt has now developed a complementary process that has several advantages over the Direct Process: It uses hexachlorodisilane and chlorinated hydrocarbons as starting materials. “Hexachlorodisilane is already mass-produced for the semiconductor industry and the perchlorethylene (PER) we use particularly frequently is a non-flammable liquid which is so inexpensive that it’s used worldwide as a solvent for dry cleaning,” says Matthias Wagner. In addition, the process runs at room temperature and under normal pressure. To activate it, just a small concentration of chloride ions is needed in place of a catalyst.
“Our process produces highly functionalized organochlorosilanes that are ideal crosslinkers. In addition, their special structure offers excellent possibilities to adjust the mechanical flexibility of the silicon chains as desired,” explains co-inventor Isabelle Georg, whose doctoral dissertation is being sponsored by the Evonik Foundation. Julian Teichmann was also involved in the project. He confirms that above all the close collaboration between Goethe University and Evonik had a tremendous influence on his training: “Regular discussion of our results with Evonik’s industrial chemists opened my eyes from the beginning to economic constraints and ecological requirements. It was fascinating to follow the path from our discoveries in the lab via the patenting procedures to realization on a technical scale in practice.”
The chemists in Frankfurt believe that their monomers’ special potential lies in the fact that they contain not only silicon-chlorine bonds but also carbon-carbon multiple bonds. The purpose of the former is to construct the inorganic silicon-oxygen chains; the latter can be linked to form organic polymers. This unique combination permits new routes to inorganic-organic hybrid materials.
Publication: I. Georg et al: Exhaustively Trichlorosilylated C1 and C2 Building Blocks: Beyond the Müller-Rochow Direct Process, in: J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2018, DOI: 10.1021/jacs.8b05950
Further information: Professor Matthias Wagner, Institute of Inorganic and Analytical Chemistry, Riedberg Campus, Tel.: ++49(0)69-798-29156, Matthias.Wagner@chemie.uni-frankfurt.de
National and regional governments pledge total of around € 97 million for LOEWE Centre “Frankfurt Cancer Institute”
FRANKFURT. Goethe University has a new LOEWE Centre under its belt – together with its own research building that is planned for completion by 2023. As announced on 29 June, a good € 73.4 million are being made available for this purpose; the decision followed a recommendation by the German Council of Science and Humanities in April 2018. Hessen’s State Ministry for Higher Education, Research and the Arts had officially announced just the day before that the Frankfurt Cancer Institute would be integrated as a LOEWE Centre in the state’s scientific support programme. Around € 23.6 million in regional funding are available for operating costs in the first phase from 2019 to 2022.
LOEWE Centre “Frankfurt Cancer Institute”
Nowadays, it is possible to completely decode cancer genes within just a few days. However, to be able to forecast how well a patient will respond to treatment, genetic data are only useful to a limited degree because for this it is necessary to know the effect of mutations within the tumour cell and in turn what impact this will have on the surrounding tissue and the immune system. Exploring this complex process is the task of the LOEWE Centre “Frankfurt Cancer Institute” (LOEWE FCI), where basic researchers and clinicians will work closely together in interdisciplinary teams. Partners from the pharmaceutical industry are also involved. Particularly gratifying is the news that the Frankfurt Cancer Institute will receive a new building on Niederrad Campus paid for by the national government: € 73.4 million have now been approved. According to a press release by Hessen’s State Ministry for Higher Education, Research and the Arts, the national and regional governments are each contributing 50 % towards € 52.1 million of this sum; German Cancer Aid will donate € 20 million towards building costs and additional funds will come from other partners.
“The two grants mean tremendous progress for university medicine in Frankfurt, especially for oncology. Translational cancer research at Goethe University has seen a very positive development in the last ten years. These efforts are now being rewarded by Hessen’s state government and German Cancer Aid in the shape of the new LOEWE Centre and the new research building, for which we’re very grateful. It raises our work to a new level,” says Professor Florian Greten, Director of the Georg Speyer Haus and professor for tumour biology at the Faculty of Medicine of Goethe University.
Apart from Goethe University, also participating in the project are the Georg Speyer Haus (GSH), the German Cancer Consortium (DKTK), the Paul-Ehrlich-Institut (PEI) and the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research in Bad Nauheim.
“Congratulations to our researchers on Niederrad Campus, who following the approval of the LOEWE jurors have now also been given the green light for their new building by the Joint Science Conference of the state ministry responsible here in Hessen and the federal government in Berlin,” says Professor Birgitta Wolff, President of Goethe University. She is very pleased about the double success. “The Frankfurt Cancer Institute will perform a task that is very important for the future. It will contribute not only to our scientific understanding of cancer but also to its more targeted treatment. This requires staying power and an opportunity to bring together the corresponding disciplines on a long-term basis. We’re very grateful to the national and regional governments for enabling us to establish the necessary framework. The funds for our own new research building are an important milestone that will give cancer research here in Frankfurt a tremendous boost. I’m very happy that Hessen’s state government initiated the LOEWE programme: It’s an indispensable instrument for developing large-scale research programmes at our region’s universities and keeping them running over a long period.”
Funding applications with good prospects
Thanks to the positive evaluation of their preliminary proposals, a further three projects were invited to submit full proposals in the 12th round of funding:
Further information on the LOEWE Centre “Frankfurt Cancer Institute”: Professor Florian Greten, Director of the Georg Speyer Haus, Faculty of Medicine, Goethe University, Tel.: +49(0)69-63395-183, Greten@gsh.uni-frankfurt.de.
Comparison of billions of theoretical models with gravitational waves results in the answer to an old riddle
FRANKFURT. How large is a neutron star? Previous estimates varied from eight to sixteen kilometres. Astrophysicists at the Goethe University Frankfurt and the FIAS have now succeeded in determining the size of neutron stars to within 1.5 kilometres by using an elaborate statistical approach supported by data from the measurement of gravitational waves. The researchers’ report appears in the current issue of Physical Review Letters.
Neutron stars are the densest objects in our universe, with a mass larger than that of our sun compacted into a relatively small sphere whose diameter is comparable to that of the city of Frankfurt. This is actually just a rough estimate, however. For more than 40 years, the determination of the size of neutron stars has been a holy grail in nuclear physics whose solution would provide important information on the fundamental behaviour of matter at nuclear densities.
The data from the detection of gravitational waves from merging neutron stars (GW170817) make an important contribution toward solving this puzzle. At the end of 2017, Professor Luciano Rezzolla, Institute for Theoretical Physics at the Goethe University Frankfurt and FIAS, together with his students Elias Most and Lukas Weih already exploited this data to answer a long-standing question about the maximum mass that neutron stars can support before collapsing to a black hole - a result that was also confirmed by various other groups around the world. Following this first important result, the same team, with the help of Professor Juergen Schaffner-Bielich, has worked to set tighter constraints on the size of neutron stars.
The crux of the matter is that the equation of state which describes the matter inside neutron stars is not known. The physicists therefore decided to pursue another path: they selected statistical methods to determine the size of neutron stars within narrow limits. In order to set the new limits, they computed more than two billion theoretical models of neutron stars by solving the Einstein equations describing the equilibrium of these relativistic stars and combined this large dataset with the constraints coming from the GW170817 gravitational wave detection.
“An approach of this type is not unusual in theoretical physics," remarks Rezzolla, adding: "By exploring the results for all possible values of the parameters, we can effectively reduce our uncertainties." As a result, the researchers were able to determine the radius of a typical neutron star within a range of only 1.5 km: it lies between 12 and 13.5 kilometres, a result that can be further refined by future gravitational wave detections.
"However, there is a twist to all this, as neutron stars can have twin solutions," comments Schaffner-Bielich. It is in fact possible that at ultra-high densities, matter drastically changes its properties and undergoes a so-called "phase transition." This is similar to what happens to water when it freezes and transitions from a liquid to a solid state. In the case of neutron stars, this transition is speculated to turn ordinary matter into "quark matter," producing stars that will have the exact same mass as their neutron star "twin," but that will be much smaller and consequently more compact.
While there is no definite proof for their existence, they are plausible solutions and the researchers from Frankfurt have taken this possibility into account, despite the additional complications that twin stars imply. This effort ultimately paid off as their calculations have revealed an unexpected result: twin stars are statistically rare and cannot be deformed very much during the merger of two such stars. This is an important finding as it now allows scientists to potentially rule out the existence of these very compact objects. Future gravitational-wave observations will therefore reveal whether or not neutron stars have exotic twins.
Publication: Elias R. Most, Lukas R. Weih, Luciano Rezzolla, Jürgen Schaffner-Bielich: New constraints on radii and tidal deformabilities of neutron stars from GW170817, Phys. Rev. Lett. 120, 261103. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.120.261103
Picture material can be downloaded under: www.muk.uni-frankfurt.de/72776172?
Figure caption: "Range of the size for a typical neutron star compared to the city of Frankfurt (satellite image: GeoBasis-DE/BKG (2009) Google)".
Further information: Professor Luciano Rezzolla, Frankfurt Institute for Theoretical Physics, Faculty of Physics, and Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, Riedberg Campus, Tel. +49 (0) 69 798-47871, email@example.com.