It was chance that turned Helmut Kettenmann’s attention to glia cells – the topic that would go on to determine the rest of his research life. These cells perform important functions in the brains of vertebrates. But in 1980, when Helmut Kettenmann was writing his thesis in biology, very little was known about the cell type that was first described by Rudolf Virchow. As a student, Kettenmann observed in one of his experiments that glia cells react to neurotransmitters – up until then, they had been regarded as functionally unimportant “filler” tissue that simply held gray cells together.
This discovery marked the beginning of several decades of extraordinarily successful research into glial cells. Helmut Kettenmann received his doctorate in 1982 on the topic of “Electrophysiological investigations of glial cells in culture” and subsequently worked as a research assistant at Heidelberg University, where he qualified as a professor in 1987. In the same year, he founded the magazine Glia, of which he has been editor and co-publisher ever since. In 1993 he was appointed head of the research group on Cellular Neurosciences at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC). Since 1996, Helmut Kettenmann has been professor of cellular neurobiology at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.
The German Neuroscience Society celebrates 25 years – and a new award
Over these years, the medal winner has “shaped the field of glia research probably more than any other scientist of our time,” said Professor Frank Kirchhoff, a former employee of Kettenmann, in his laudatory speech. Among other things, the scientist has described the interaction between brain tumor cells and microglia – one of the three main glial cell types – and worked out the relevance of glial cells for other diseases of the nervous system. Thanks to Kettenmann, we now know that glial cells are just as important for the function of the brain and nervous system as neurons.
In addition to Helmut Kettenmann’s scientific work, his commitment to the German Neuroscience Society was also highlighted. The always-busy biologist actually co-founded the Society, serving as its secretary general from 1993 to 2006 and as president from 2013 to 2015. The Society celebrated its 25th anniversary in Berlin on July 11 with roughly 100 guests, including Nobel Prize winners Bert Sakmann and Eric Kandel. The anniversary celebrations also provided the perfect occasion to award the very first Otto Loewi Medal – of which Helmut Kettenmann is the first recipient. The medal is endowed with €10,000 and honors excellent scientific achievements and special contributions to the German Neuroscience Society.
The award is named after Otto Loewi (1873‒1961), a neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner who discovered the first neurotransmitter. Using the chemical substance he called Vagusstoff (vagus substance), he was able to demonstrate for the first time how nerve impulses are transmitted from one cell to the next.