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Award

Helmholtz Zentrum München is the recipient of the 2020 Erwin Schrödinger Prize

Researchers at Helmholtz Zentrum München and the University of Bochum received this year's Erwin Schrödinger Prize in recognition of their efforts to develop a cure for parasitic diseases such as Chagas disease with a new compound. The prize is endowed with 50 000 euros. This year, the award ceremony took place virtually at the Helmholtz Association's annual conference.

© Helmholtz

Watch the video about the awarded project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyMDj6AE6WY&feature=youtu.be

Parasitic diseases such as the Chagas disease are globally on the rise. Originating from tropical regions, they are increasingly spreading to cooler areas such as North America and Europe. Until today, there is no cure and existing drugs only alleviate the symptoms with severe side effects.

Chagas disease is a tropical parasitic disease spread mostly by insects commonly known as “kissing bugs”. These insects bite humans and thus transport the parasite into the human body. The disease initially causes flu-like symptoms, but can also result in cardiac or gastrointestinal complications, which can eventually lead to death. In some cases, complications such as inflammation of the heart muscle can sometimes occur many years after the initial infection. The biggest challenge is to identify infected persons without symptoms and treat them at an early stage. The disease can also be transmitted between people through contact with the blood of infected individuals.

Progress against parasitic diseases

In an interdisciplinary approach, the awarded research team has been working on the development of a new drug against parasitic diseases like Chagas for the past years. The team includes the structural biologists of Helmholtz Zentrum München, Prof. Dr. Michael Sattler and Dr. Grzegorz Popowicz, the chemist Dr. Maciej Dawidowski (now at the University of Warsaw) and the cell biologists Prof. Dr. Ralf Erdmann and Dr. Vishal Kalel of the Ruhr University of Bochum (RUB).

The scientists successfully developed a small molecule that specifically blocks proteins of the Chagas parasite which are responsible for its glucose metabolism, thus killing the parasite. In order to be used in humans, the compound has to be improved and ultimately tested for its efficacy and safety in clinical trials. It might also be used for other parasitic diseases such as Leishmanosis or the African sleeping sickness.

Interdisciplinary research is the key

“Interdisciplinary and fundamental research is the core principle of the Helmholtz Association. As a part of this association, we aim to solve the most critical health problems of our society. These include parasitic diseases,” says Popowicz. “With increasing globalization and in the face of climate change, parasitic diseases will rise and expand to more regions worldwide” adds Erdmann.

“Drug discovery can only take place via an interdisciplinary approach. Our collaboration is proof for the need of a diverse set of expertise from various fields: biology, chemistry, medicine and many others. In the not too distant future, this may potentially lead us to discover an efficient and safe therapeutical approach for Chagas and related parasitic diseases," says Sattler.

“I congratulate the five prize winners on their achievements. With their interdisciplinary approach, they are taking an important step in the fight against parasitic diseases,” says Otmar D. Wiestler, President of the Helmholtz Association. “Now it is a matter of bringing this excellent work into medical application – as a new substance that could help millions of people around the world. This combination of fundamental research and clinical practice is an important element of Helmholtz’ top-level research.”

Prof. Matthias Tschöp, CEO at Helmholtz Zentrum München: “Hundreds of excellent researchers from more than 70 nations are working at our research center on novel solutions for a healthier society in this rapidly changing world. The breakthrough of Professor Sattler and his team is a prime example of what is possible when world-class scientists work across disciplines supported by state-of-the-art research technology and infrastructure to make transformative discoveries toward one common goal: prevent and cure environmentally induced diseases.”

About the Erwin Schrödinger Prize

With the Erwin Schrödinger Prize – the Stifterverband Science Award, the Helmholtz Association and the Stifterverband recognize outstanding scientific achievements and technological innovations at the interface between various disciplines in medicine, the natural sciences and engineering. The work must involve representatives of at least two disciplines. www.stifterverband.org  & www.helmholtz.de