Prof. Dr. Stephan Herzig

Helmholtz Diabetes Center: Director Stephan Herzig wants to promote translational research and innovative technologies

“Avert work jams” – that is  Stephan Herzig’s motto for his research. Considering the multitude of his professional roles, this is a very useful motto. His latest position since August 2018: The molecular biologist is the new director of the Helmholtz Diabetes Center. He avoids work backlogs by putting tasks that are difficult to fit into his schedule at the top of his to-do list. Time of this interview: 7:30 a.m.

Prof. Dr. Stephan Herzig. © Helmholtz Zentrum München

Professor Stephan Herzig’s paramount objective is to help people with diabetes. To achieve this, he holds key positions for bringing different research areas together and optimizing their orientation. He is director of the Helmholtz Diabetes Center and heads the Institute for Diabetes and Cancer. He is also speaker of the Helmholtz Graduate School Environmental Health (HELENA), coordinator of the Helmholtz program AMPro (Aging and Metabolic Programming), co-speaker of the Collaborative Research Center “Reactive Metabolites as a Cause of Diabetic Complications” and chairholder at Technische Universität München. "My personal research vision is to develop an effective prevention or treatment of diabetes using the findings of our basic research," said Herzig.

Generate benefits

In order to pursue his goals more effectively, he came from the German Cancer Research Center to Helmholtz Zentrum München at the beginning of 2015. “Topics, technology and translation, these ‘3 T's are available here in a combination and quality that enable me to conduct diabetes research comprehensively and to translate new findings into targeted therapies, “ said Herzig, explaining why he moved to Munich.

Herzig took over the management of the Helmholtz Diabetes Center (HDC) from Professor Matthias Tschöp after Tschöp was appointed Scientific Director and Speaker of the Board of Directors of Helmholtz Zentrum München in August 2018. As HDC Director, Herzig is the coordinator of nine diabetes institutes, including the Institute for Diabetes and Cancer, which he heads. With its numerous clinical and industry collaborations, the HDC is Germany's largest diabetes research site. "The expertise of the researchers working here is unique, and the start-up phase of the HDC has been extremely successful," Herzig noted. In order to further promote diabetes research, both in Munich and worldwide, he is now seeking to achieve two goals. He wants to intensify translational research and, together with scientists from the Helmholtz Pioneer Campus, develop and apply new, innovative technologies that exactly match the requirements of diabetes research.

Same patterns for different diseases

As director of the Institute for Diabetes and Cancer, he hopes to focus his research on secondary diseases and comorbidities of type 2 diabetes and identify control sites that can be used to treat energy homeostasis disorders. Other priorities are the mechanisms of cancer risk in metabolic diseases and metabolic wasting syndrome in tumor patients. "I am fascinated by the fact that there are similar processes in very different diseases, such as cancer and diabetes," said Herzig. "While involuntary weight loss is life-threatening in cancer, it could significantly improve the clinical picture of diabetics.

“What helps people?” – for Herzig this is the crucial question. “Our research results must bring an improvement for people with diabetes“. While it sometimes takes a lot of energy to maintain this work discipline, he is passionate about his everyday life as a researcher: "I have the opportunity to make new discoveries – unknown mechanisms, molecules and functionalities – and have the freedom to explore new areas, to challenge myself," said Herzig. "That appeals to me and means quality of life for me. “

Build networks

With his enthusiasm and experience, Herzig inspires the doctoral students in the HELENA program. For him, the Helmholtz Graduate School Environmental Health is a guarantee of quality on both sides: while young academics receive structured, first-class training, senior management can recruit new talents from a highly-qualified pool. In addition, "a network of the next generation is being created," said HELENA speaker Herzig.

Herzig will make a key contribution to the worldwide diabetes network in 2019: For the first time, he will be the main organizer of the Helmholtz Diabetes Conference in Munich, where diabetes experts from all over the world will meet to share the latest findings. He has already gained experience as co-organizer in recent years. Herzig’s conviction is that results must be made public: “They must be discussed in the professional world and presented to the public in a generally understandable way. This exchange accelerates research progress and translational research."

Video: Helmholtz Diabetes Center

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