The EKFS has awarded three young medical specialists the Else Kröner Exzellenzstipendium for the fourth time. These physicians carry a lot of clinical responsibility in patient care; they are mentors who motivate other young scientists with great enthusiasm, and they also drive forward their own field of research with internationally esteemed expertise.
It is vital for the medicine of the future for physicians engaged in research to, in the figurative sense, take clinical issues out of the hospital bed and into the laboratory, and to broaden the clinical potential of fundamental findings. Experienced medical specialists and senior consultants in Germany, however, have few opportunities to successfully carry on their own research alongside their clinical duties. The funding provided by the Else Kröner-Exzellenzstipendien allows the highly talented Clinician Scientists to take a two-year leave of absence from patient care at their respective clinic in order to work intensively on clinical science issues. The EKFS awards €150,000 p.a. per fellowship, to cover salary and material resources.
Combining medical care with international research is something that has shaped PD Dr. Elion Hoxha’s medical career right from the start. The physician has been working at the III. Medical Clinic and Polyclinic at Hamburg-Eppendorf University Hospital since 2009. His interest in natural sciences was awakened early in life. Back in 2000, as a high-school student, he represented his home country of Albania in the International Physics Olympiad in Leicester/England. After completing his medical studies, he pursued Graduate Study in Molecular Biology at the Centre for Molecular Neurobiology in Hamburg. Since March 2016, PD Dr. Hoxha has been an Internal Medicine and Nephrology consultant. His research findings from the past five years in the field of membranous glomerulonephritis have already found their way into clinical practice and have influenced patient diagnostics and therapy. Several high-level publications and not least being awarded the Nils-Alwall-Preis 2016 of the German Association of Nephrology spur him on.
His research field:
Dr. Elion Hoxha is concerned with the development of inflammatory glomerular kidney diseases, such as membranous glomerulonephritis (MGN). This is a chronic inflammatory disease of the renal corpuscles and is the most common cause of nephrotic syndrome in adults. The primary form of MGN is an autoimmune disease caused by antibodies circulating in the blood binding to a podocyte antigen. The phospholipase A2 receptor (PLA2R) is the target antigen in almost 80% of patients with MGN, against which the immune response is directed. The progression of MGN is difficult to predict and the treatment options consist of immunosuppresion, which is non-specific, however, and toxic. The PLA2R antibodies can be targeted at different epitopes on the PLA2R and it is unclear to date whether the immunogenicity and pathogenicity of the various epitopes on the PLA2R vary. The aim of this project is to characterise the PLA2R epitopes, against which the PLA2R antibodies are directed. Dr. Elion Hoxha: “These investigations could lead to the development of new, specific and low-side-effect therapies, and could help to manage the immunosuppressive therapy in these patients.”
PD Dr. Dimitros Mougiakakos meets all the requirements for a continued successful scientific career as a Clinician Scientist. After gaining his license to practice medicine in 2006, the physician began his clinician scientist training at the Medical Clinic at the University of Freiburg. He then worked at the Department of Haematology and Internal Oncology at Regensburg University Hospital. As part of a training fellowship, funded by the DFG and the Karolinska Institute, he spent some time at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm as a Postdoctoral Fellow. PD Dr. Mougiakakos published the exceptionally successful scientific work he achieved within the working group of Prof. Rolf Kiessling in high-ranking journals. Following his three-year research stay at the Karolinska Institute, the physician returned to Germany and the University of Erlangen, to continue focussing on his primary research topics, the field of tumour metabolism as a therapeutic target structure. The fellowship awardee has also been head of a Max Eder junior researcher group funded by German Cancer Aid (Deutsche Krebshilfe) at the University of Erlangen since 2013.
His research field:
Cancerous cells exhibit a change in energy metabolism. This gives them growth advantages, and is involved in the development of resistance to therapies. At the same time, tumour cells, due to their thus newly created dependencies within their energy supply, may react sensitively to disruptions in their metabolic network. The working group of PD Dr. Dimitros Mougiakakos is developing innovative therapy strategies on the basis of this fact. Furthermore, tumour cells constantly communicate with their surroundings A significant part of the immunological tumour resistance takes place in this tumour microenvironment. Metabolism and immunology are closely interlinked in this respect. For instance, scientists have been able to show that the breakdown of certain amino acids or the excessive release of oxygen radicals by tumour cells leads to disruptions of immune cells. Decoding the underlying (metabolic) strategies should help us to optimise both intrinsic immune responses and the efficiency of immunotherapeutic approaches. In summary, the objective of Clinician Scientists is as follows: “The aim of our work is to create the foundation for (A) the development of new targeted therapies in the field of tumour metabolism and for (B) the strengthening of anti-tumour immune responses.”
PD Dr. Pavel Strnad works as a senior consultant at Aachen University Hospital, and also carries out top-level research into digestive disorders. After gaining his PhD in 2003, PD Dr. Strnad went to Stanford University as a postdoctoral researcher to carry out further research into the role of keratin in digestive disorders. However, he then returned to Germany in 2007 to be closer to patients again and do some clinical work, initially to Ulm University Hospital, where he assumed leadership of a research group as an Emmy Noether fellow. In mid-2012 the medic took up the position of head of a junior researcher group at the Aachen Interdisciplinary Center for Clinical Research (IZKF). For his outstanding work in the field of gastroenterology PD Dr. Strnad was named by United European Gastroenterology (UEG) as one of the eight “Rising Stars” of 2016.
His research field:
His focus areas include keratin, iron metabolism and Alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency. Keratins are important protective proteins and their mutations are involved in the development of numerous diseases in humans. Keratins also play a key role as markers of various diseases. Alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency, or AAT deficiency for short, is a frequently overlooked metabolic disorder, which is the third most common terminal hereditary disease. PD Dr. Strnad’s research aims to find ways and means to detect liver damage in AAT deficiency at an early stage and to optimise the care of affected patients. To this end, PD Dr. Strnad’s team has initiated a Europe-wide study group.