Awards presented by the Robert Koch Foundation

Resistance strategies of the immune system and defense tricks used by bacteria

Berlin, October 30, 2009

Groundbreaking research gives hope for new active substances

The Robert Koch Foundation has given the 2009 Robert Koch Award, worth a total of EUR 100,000, to Dr. Carl Nathan. This year’s Robert Koch Gold Medal goes to Professor Volker ter Meulen. The prizes were presented on October 30, 2009 by representative of the Federal ministery of health at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Berlin.

Robert Koch Award
Dr. Nathan, Chairman of Microbiology and Immunology and Professor of Microbiology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, USA, has been honored for his groundbreaking research into the mechanisms of antibacterial infection resistance. He was able to show that an inorganic gas, nitrogen monoxide (NO), is formed by activated macrophages and plays a role in defending the body against pathogens.
Although macrophages attack the microbes with chemicals such as NO, tuberculosis bacteria are able to dodge the body’s immune defenses and embed themselves as dormant pathogens in the macrophages. They use mycobacterial metallothionein (MymT), the protein isolated by Dr. Nathan, to act as a barrier against attack by the macrophages. A further discovery made by Dr. Nathan and his team is the enzyme dihydrolipoamide acetyltransferase (DlaT), which provides the tuberculosis bacteria with energy and also helps to protect them against attack by the immune cells. The scientists are now looking for active substances which inhibit DlaT and can thus destroy pathogens which have entered the body.

Robert Koch Gold Medal
Professor Volker ter Meulen of Würzburg University has been awarded the Robert Koch Gold Medal for his life’s work in investigating the neuronal persistence of viral infections. The virologist is one of the leading researchers in the field of viral infections of the central nervous system. These include diseases such as subacute sclerosing panencephalitis and infections caused by coronaviruses and simian immunodeficiency viruses. Through his work, Professor ter Meulen was able to show that measles viruses switch off the body’s immune defenses with glycoproteins which inhibit the formation of lymphocytes. This was a pioneering discovery because it revealed a new principle by which the immune system can be suppressed. Following his career in university research, Professor ter Meulen became president of the renowned Leopoldina in Halle, Germany. Prior to the G8 Summit in Germany in 2007, he invited his counterparts from the participating nations and emerging economies to issue a joint declaration on climate protection. His commitment was rewarded when the Leopoldina was nominatet as Germany’s National Academy of Sciences in 2008.
The Robert Koch Award and Gold Medal, which are presented annually, are among the most prestigious scientific awards in Germany. The foundation, which stands under the patronage of German President Professor Horst Köhler, is dedicated to promoting basic research into infectious diseases and other widespread diseases.
The awards are named after the scientist who was one of the founders of modern bacteriology. Robert Koch (1843 to 1910) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1905 in recognition of his achievements. He discovered the anthrax bacillus in 1876 and isolated tuberculosis bacteria in 1882. From 1883 onwards, Koch devoted himself to research into other infectious diseases such as cholera. From 1891 until he retired in 1904, he was Director of the Institute of Infectious Diseases in Berlin.

Post-doctorate prizes for young scientists
The Robert Koch Foundation also awarded its post-doctorate prizes for outstanding work by young scientists, each endowed with EUR 5,000, at the ceremony. The German societies for hygiene and microbiology, immunology and virology have the right to nominate their candidates for the prizes. This year’s post-doctorate prize for virology went to Dr. Michaela Gack of Coburg, Germany, for her work on the interaction of viral gene products with the immune system. Dr. Bärbel Stecher of Zurich, Switzerland, received the prize for microbiology for her analysis of bacterial intestinal pathogens. Dr. Olaf Groß of Lausanne, Switzerland, was awarded the prize for immunology for his work on immune response activation by pathogenic fungi.