Dr. Micha Drukker

Searching for the Origin

His home is always where top scientists collaborate to discover how stem cells develop into the specialized cell types that our body is consisted of. Micha Drukker already conducted research on this topic at The Hebrew University in Israel and at Stanford University in the U.S. Since 2012 he has headed the junior research group “Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Lineage Choice” at the Institute of Stem Cell Research at Helmholtz Zentrum München –
and feels as if he has arrived home. “I was already acquainted with my colleagues and knew that this is an ideal environment to study fundamental questions and translate the findings for studying development of multifactorial diseases.”

The aim of Micha Drukker is to provide cures for diseases by means of induced pluripotent stem cells. His team reprograms cells from patients affected with diabetes and Parkinson’s disease (image) with the aid of mRNA molecules encoding specialized sets of transcription factors. Source: HMGU

Already as a child, Micha Drukker was fascinated with the question of our own creation: How does a finely coordinated system of organs develop from a single fertilized ovum? How do molecular interactions between organs mediate development? Trying to find the answer to this is what drives Drukker in his research.

The biologist specializes in the study of stem cells. They offer the possibility to study in the lab the development of undifferentiated cells, not yet specified to serve particular functions, into tissues and thus to come closer to solving the question of how we are made to become what we are. Drukker uses two cell types for his research: embryonic stem cells and somatic cells. The latter he reprograms back to their original state, so that they, too, are pluripotent. Then by applying signals and factors they can be instructed to develop into any cell type. Using embryonic stem cells, the scientist defines precisely when pluripotent cells develop into specialized cells and which mechanisms and molecules are responsible for this. “When we have analyzed these processes, we can open up a wide area of medical applications,” says Drukker.

At Stanford University he developed a technique with which tissue progenitor cells can be isolated very efficiently from mixed cultures of differentiating stem cells. Using this technique at Helmholtz Zentrum München, he is now focusing on purifying tissue-
regenerating cells from pluripotent stem cells, including beta cells for the therapy of type 1 diabetes patients. ” My goal is to replace functionless or inefficiently working cells in diabetes or Parkinson patients with functioning cells,” the scientist explains.

Using the second cell type, the reprogrammed skin cells, Drukker wants to find out how normal pluripotent cells differ from those of the patient samples: “Reprogrammed cells are well suited to study in vitro where the switches are set for the development of multifactorial diseases such as diabetes or neurodegenerative diseases.“

The research group leader also offers expertise and techniques to other scientists. He is convinced that research today can only succeed when the experts of various specialized areas work together in synergy. “The days of the generalists are over,” he stresses. That is why he especially appreciates the fact that a broad scientific spectrum can be encountered directly at the Center. “I work here like in a kibbutz: My colleagues and I are a great community, who are together attempting to understand the question of life emergence. Everyone is at the top of his or her field. That inspires me,” says Drukker.