A career in Berlin-Buch: From undergraduate to gene therapist, in 40 (not-so-easy) steps

When Wolfgang Uckert arrived on the scientific campus in Buch as a 22 year-old in 1974, he never imagined it as a place he would call home for 40 years.
I remember looking at the senior staff members and thinking, these guys are old. Now I’m one of the old guys!
Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Uckert
Wolfgang Uckert Group Leader "Molecular Cell Biology and Gene Therapy"

Age was an issue even in the group he joined, first that of Arnold Graffi and later of Dieter Bierwolf: Wolfgang was the first diploma student the lab had seen in over a decade. Not only that, he was a chemist. Most East Germans in that field were being snatched up by the agriculture industry, and Wolfgang had been offered a job at an agricultural institute. He hesitated because once he accepted, he’d probably be stuck there for the rest of his career. But he needed an alternative before he could turn it down.

By chance Wolfgang heard of an opening at the Academy of Sciences in Buch, devoted to molecular biology, cancer, and circulatory diseases – topics that seemed highly interesting. He hurried to turn in an application and waited, only to discover two weeks later, by accident, that he’d submitted it to the wrong department. So that had to be straightened out, which meant another rushed trip to the campus.

In Graffi’s lab he began working on retroviruses under the supervison of Volker Wunderlich. This class of viruses had piqued researchers’ interest because of the way they reproduced by writing instructions into the genetic code of host cells. Robert Gallo was about to discover HTLV-1, the first human retrovirus – a find that was greeted with heavy skepticism by the scientific community. But in the 1980s the arrival of another such virus, HIV, would quell all doubts that humans could be infected by retroviruses.

Wunderlich’s lab carried out excellent work that resulted in several publications in the journal Virology. Wolfgang received his doctorate in 1980 and then, two years later, received an opportunity that was extremely rare for East German scientists: a three-month FEBS fellowship to work at the Free University of Brussels. There some of the limitations of research in the East became clear.

“So much in science depends on the connections you make,” he says. “In the West people moved around; they could attend conferences all over the world where they met other scientists and freely exchanged ideas. In East Germany you rarely met a researcher from the West.”

Institutes had access to all the scientific journals; another surprise was that you could order equipment, chemicals or reagents, and get them fast – sometimes within just a day or two. In the East the same process often took two to three years. “One result was that you had to plan things much more carefully,” Wolfgang says. “You might only have one or two chances to do an experiment, so you had to get it right the first time.”

Many of the institutes got around the problem by working out a sort of barter system; good restriction enzymes could be obtained from Jena, for example, while the Buch campus produced excellent phosphor and other radioactively labeled substances. “So we often got what we needed by trading things,” he says.

He returned from Brussels with “tears in his eyes,” he says, but a few years later he’d have another chance to go abroad. George Beaudreau, an American researcher from Oregon State University, visited Graffi’s lab for a year. Upon his departure he began working on a plan to get Wolfgang to the U.S. That opportunity materialized in 1986, and the young scientist headed for California, to Peter Vogt’s lab at USC Los Angeles – leaving his wife and two small children behind. At this time, having a family with kids was kind of a “guarantee” for East German officials that you most probably would come back and an equivalent if you were not a member of the communist party.

“It was a wonderful experience that really showed me how things worked in the States,” Wolfgang says. “Once a month we’d go out to dinner with Peter Vogt. He’d say, ‘What are you doing in East Germany? Don’t you want to stay?’ I very much would have liked to, but there was no guarantee that my family could follow. They would have suffered the consequences, and it would have caused problems for my lab in Buch, too. And I would have felt I was dishonoring those who had risked their lives trying to cross the German border.”

The more you “got out,” he says, the more critical you became of the way things were done in the East. But three years after his return, the Berlin Wall would fall, taking with it the unwieldy system in which Wolfgang had received his scientific training. The end of the East German regime would bring turbulent times for everyone, including the researchers on the Berlin-Buch campus.

For one thing, Wolfgang was in the process of completing his Habilitation – the process by which PhDs in both East and West Germany received full qualifications as teachers and scientists in the university system. He managed to finish just on time: A few days later would have meant a delay in the process of about a year and a half. That happened to some of his colleagues, including Ulrike Stein. While the wait was difficult, for Ulrike it has paid off: today she has her own group with a focus on the “Translational Oncology of Solid Tumors.”

Wolfgang Uckert's first conference visit as a "Bundesbürger" (citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany as opposed to the German Democratic Republic) led him to Innsbruck. The picture was taken 1991. Source: Personal collection of W. Uckert

“I was 37,” Wolfgang says, “an age at which you can still adapt. For those who were older, it was much more difficult.” But adaptation wouldn’t be that easy for anyone. The entire institute was undergoing a rigorous evaluation by a group of renowned international experts from the West. Eventually they would recommend dissolving the Academy of Sciences, dismissing most of the administrators and many scientists. In its place on the Buch campus would arise the MDC, following a plan proposed by Detlev Ganten, who became founding director of the new institute.

For a short interim period, Wolfgang and his colleagues continued their work, mostly on their own, watching as the MDC began assembling a staff of new group leaders. The first two rounds of recruitment were devoted almost exclusively to scientists from the West. “They were clever at presenting things in a way that made them look good,” Wolfgang says, “and they had access to amounts of data that we could only dream of.”

In a third round, Wolfgang had a chance to present his own results and a vision of the type of work he might do at the MDC. “Obviously, I had one of those good days,” he laughs, “Detlev Ganten, who headed the committee, decided to recruit me. I’m also extremely thankful to Hermann Bujard, who invited me in 1990 to Heidelberg for a very intensive ‘course’ in writing grant applications.”

Another new recruit who arrived on campus was Thomas Blankenstein, whose lab would be devoted to studying interactions between the immune system and tumors. Thomas proposed integrating Wolfgang into his group as a sort of “senior postdoc,” with significant independence. Wolfgang would be able to apply for his own grants and pursue themes that interested him.

“Thomas and I were about the same age, and I owe a great deal to him,” Wolfgang says. “He helped me learn how to do science in the ‘new system,’ to obtain money and become truly independent. In 2001 I was ready to apply for a full professorship in molecular cell biology and gene therapy, sponsored by the Schering Foundation, which was successful.”

Today Wolfgang’s group includes 15 people, and he has a scientific record that would be exemplary for anyone, anywhere. He has racked up 100 peer-reviewed publications since that first day in Buch, in 1974. Since his appointment at the MDC he has brought in over 10 million Euros in external grants. And in March 2014, the community recognized his accomplishments by naming him President of the German Society of Gene Therapy.

Wolfgang says that having worked in both systems provided valuable experience for those who were able to adapt. “Competition has both good and bad sides,” he says. “We’ve been able to find excellent young scientists who are very skilled and interactive. And the work that Thomas and I have carried out holds real promise in the field of gene therapy. We’ve developed ‘designer T cells’ with modified antigen specificity; they are now the basis for the first clinical trials to arise from the DFG Sonderforschungsbereich TR36 and BIH here on campus.”

Featured Image: Wolfgang Uckert's group standing at our Blue Bear. Wolfgang is the "old guy" on the left. Photo: Uckert Group, MDC