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Professor Rudolf Jaenisch Receives Max Delbrück Medal

Stem cell researcher Professor Rudolf Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, MA, USA, has been awarded the Max Delbrück Medal for his research on epigenetic mechanisms of gene regulation. These play a vital role in development and can lead to disease if dysfunctional. The study of these mechanisms is especially significant with respect to embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. In his award lecture “Nuclear Cloning, Embryonic Stem Cells and Cell Therapy: Promise, Problems, Reality” held on December 1, 2006 in Berlin-Buch, Professor Jaenisch referred to the recommendations called for by the German Research Foundation (DFG) two weeks previously, which included revoking the cutoff date for stem cell lines used in research. He described the recommendations as very reasonable and said that, as a researcher, one would wish that politicians would read them and try to understand the issues.

In her laudatory address, Professor Carmen Birchmeier, developmental biologist at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Biology (MDC) Berlin-Buch, gave a short account of the recipient’s scientific career. She remarked that early on, Rudolf Jaenisch, who studied medicine and has an MD degree, was interested in mechanisms that regulate mammalian development. Professor Jaenisch’s research focuses on epigenetic mechanisms. As “epi” – a prefix derived from Greek meaning “beyond” – indicates, “epigenetic” refers to processes that go beyond the pure genetic information contained in the DNA. These mechanisms include processes in a developing embryo.

Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can develop into almost any kind of body cell.  The aim of Professor Jaenisch’s research is to create custom-tailored embryonic stem cells to treat diseases which until now have not been treatable or could only be treated inadequately. “Research still has a long way to go to achieve this goal,” Professor Jaenisch said. “It would be premature to say that clinical application is imminent.”

The research of Professor Jaenisch and his team includes working with stem cells which originate from human embryonic cells created by in vitro fertilization. In his view, they are not suitable for therapeutic purposes because they would be rejected by the recipient’s immune system. That is why researchers, by means of cell nucleus transfer technology, are attempting to engineer embryonic stem cells that the immune system does not attack. To achieve this, researchers remove the nucleus of the oocyte and replace it with the nucleus of a body cell, for example of a skin cell. The idea is that the embryonic stem cells thus cultured in a petri dish will be given back to the donor of the body cells for therapeutic purposes without provoking an auto-immune response.

If such an entity created by cell nucleus transfer is implanted into the uterus of an animal, a cloned animal is generated. The first animal created by this reproductive cloning was the cloned sheep Dolly. “It has been shown that most clones are not able to survive or that they are abnormal,” Professor Jaenisch said. Once again, he therefore vehemently spoke out against human cloning.

Professor Jaenisch: “The goal is to do without human oocytes in the future.”

It was Rudolf Jaenisch who succeeded in demonstrating for the first time that a genetic defect in mice can be corrected by means of therapeutic cloning. But before therapeutic cloning for humans can be considered seriously, research must still answer a number of questions. Professor Jaenisch and his team want to understand how the oocyte reprograms the body cell inserted into it, turning it into an embryonic stem cell- in other words, they want to find out what makes a stem cell a stem cell. “It’s a matter of understanding how an oocyte succeeds in turning back the clock and reprogramming body cells in such a way that they take a step back in their development. On the other hand, we want to understand how different body cells subsequently develop out of these embryonic stem cells.” Thus, they want to identify the genes that are the main regulators of this reprogramming. Currently, the scientists are focusing their research on three such genes. 

Professor Jaenisch also acknowledges the ethical dilemma involved in this research. “Doubtlessly, cloning destroys potential human life,” he said. “But we need human oocytes in order to understand how these processes are regulated, so that we can do without using human oocytes in the future,” he emphasized. That means that if the regulating elements and their mechanisms are known, then it should be possible sometime in the future to reprogram any kind of body cell to become an embryonic stem cell and to use it for therapeutic purposes without having to use human oocytes.

Professor Jaenisch has received numerous awards for his research, including the Boehringer Mannheim Molecular Bioanalytics Prize in 1996, the first Peter Gruber Foundation Award in Genetics in 2001, and the Robert Koch Prize in 2002. In addition, he is a Member of the National Academy of Sciences and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Rudolf Jaenisch, born in Wölfelsgrund, Germany in 1942, studied medicine in Munich. After receiving his MD degree in 1967, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, also in Munich. From there he went to the United States for several years, first to Princeton University, then to the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, PA. In 1972, he was appointed Assistant Professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA, where he developed the first transgenic mouse model, by means of which human diseases can be studied on the genetic level. Since that time, transgenic mice have been used worldwide in biomedical research. In 1977, he returned to Germany to head the Department of Tumor Virology at the Heinrich Pette Institute of the University of Hamburg. In 1984, he accepted his current position as Founding Member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, MA, USA. Concomitantly, he is a Professor of Biology at the neighboring Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Awarded annually since 1992, the Max Delbrück Medal is presented to outstanding scientists on the occasion of the “Berlin Lectures on Molecular Medicine”, which the MDC organizes together with other Berlin research institutions and the Ernst Schering Research Foundation. The first award recipient was Professor Günter Blobel, who later received the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Recipients of the Max Delbrück Medal

2006 Professor Rudolf Jaenisch, Whitehead Institute and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, USA

2005 Professor Tom Rapoport, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA

2004 Professor Victor J. Dzau, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA

2003 Professor Ronald D. G. McKay, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), Bethesda, MD, USA

2002 Professor Roger Y. Tsien, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA

2001 Professor Eric S. Lander, Whitehead Institute, Cambridge, MA, USA

2000 Professor Joan Argetsinger Steitz, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA

1999 Professor Paul Berg, Stanford University, CA, USA (Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 1980)

1998 Professor Svante Pääbo, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany

1997 Professor Charles Weissmann, University of Zurich, Switzerland

1996 Professor Robert A. Weinberg, Whitehead Institute, Cambridge, MA, USA

1995 Professor Jean-Pierre Changeux, Pasteur Institute, Paris, France

1994 Professor Sydney Brenner, University of Cambridge, UK (Nobel Prize Laureate in Medicine 2002)

1993 No award given

1992 Professor Günter Blobel, Rockefeller University of New York, NY, USA (Nobel Prize in Medicine 1999)

Professor Rudolf Jaenisch (Copyright: Whitehead Institute)

Barbara Bachtler
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