Monsieur 100 000 Volt - or - full commitment to research

Because he is so full of energy and has a temperament like Gilbert Bécaud, his PhD supervisor once described him as “Monsieur 100 000 Volt”. And rightly so.

Heikenwälder in front of a portrait of Gilbert Bécaud; Photo: Helmholtz Zentrum München

Professor Mathias Heikenwälder is 36 years old. He heads the junior research group “Chronic Inflammation, Tissue Damage and Cancer“ at Helmholtz Zentrum München. In addition, he oversees a working group in Zurich, holds lectures in Paris, New York and Munich and is currently preparing a clinical trial. He was just awarded a prestigious Young Investigator ERC (European Research Council) ERC (European Research Council) Starting Grant. His motto: Carpe diem noctemque – seize the day and the night.


An ambitious team player from a very young age

From childhood on, he internalized the virtues of self-discipline, perseverance and always doing one’s best. At only six years of age, he went to football practice five times a week, striving to win with his football team Rapid Vienna. Conversations with his tennis trainer, who was at that time a medical student, sparked his interest in cell biology and molecular biology, and he subsequently decided to study biochemistry and molecular biology. Now, with the grant money from his last award, the Young Investigator Starting Grant of the ERC, he is building up an independent junior research group in Munich. With his team and colleagues, the biologist is exploring approaches for individualized treatment of patients.

Helmholtz Zentrum München tops l’Institut Pasteur and Scripps

Heikenwälder intentionally opted for Helmholtz Zentrum München due to the Center’s outstanding technical infrastructure and scientific expertise, its excellent opportunities for cooperation with the hospitals and especially the active support provided by his institute director Professor Ulrike Protzer at the Institute of Virology. This was all so convincing that even the “L´Institut Pasteur” in Paris and the Scripps Research Institute, a research institute in San Diego, didn’t have a chance.

He is especially enthusiastic about the scientific orientation of Helmholtz Zentrum München: “Individualized therapies like they are developed at the Center are also urgently needed for patients with liver cancer. There is not just one form of liver cancer but rather different pathologies,” Heikenwälder explained. Not every subform of this disease can be treated with one and the same therapy. For example, 40 to 50 percent of the patients infected with the hepatitis C virus do not respond to conventional treatments. New therapeutic approaches are therefore necessary.

Clinical trial: first drug for individual therapy

Together with the Immune Monitoring Platform of Helmholtz Zentrum München, the Biogen Idec company and the Clinical Trial Center Zürich, Heikenwälder and his junior research group are testing the first drug in a clinical trial with 15 patients. The innovation: the new individualized therapy approach takes into account the immunological signature of each patient with hepatitis C.

The right location as guarantee for success

The framework of individualized medicine provided at Helmholtz Zentrum München in the context of environmental health, i.e. both health and the environment, is ideal for studying pathogen-induced inflammation: Bacterial and viral virulence factors come from the environment and influence health in that they cause inflammation and lead to tissue damage, autoimmunity and even cancer.

Thanks to the expertise provided at the Center and also at the Munich hospital Klinikum Rechts der Isar Heikenwälder has many different opportunities for cooperation. The researcher is convinced that he will find new approaches to treatment in this research environment and that he will help to reduce the incidence of liver cancer. But before this can be achieved he needs “discipline, perseverance and lots of luck”. But this the ambitious scientist has known from childhood.



Born in Vienna in 1976, the biologist is currently a junior research group leader at the Institute of Virology at Helmholtz Zentrum München and a W2 professor at Technische Universität München.

In 2009 he qualified as a professor at the University Medical School in Zurich in the field of Experimental Pathology. 

The young scientist has received numerous awards for his research achievements: 

  • the Creutzfeld Award in 2004
  • the EMPIRIS Award for Brain Research in 2006
  • the Götz Prize of the University of Zurich in 2009
  • the Hofschneider Professorship for Biomedical Research in 2010
  • a Starting Grant of the European Research Council, also in 2010
  • the Walther und Christine Richtzenhain Prize in 2012 

Starting grants amounting up to EUR 1.5 million are awarded by the European Research Council to promising researchers to help them establish independent research teams.

In the coming years, Heikenwälder wants to use the funds to study mechanisms that lead to liver cancer associated with chronic hepatitis.