Franz-Volhard-Preis für Kai Schmidt-Ott

Kidney expert Kai Schmidt-Ott receives award

The Berlin-based physician and researcher Kai Schmidt-Ott is investigating the causes of kidney failure and working to develop new methods to better diagnose and treat kidney diseases. The German Society of Nephrology has now recognized his research achievements with the 2021 Franz Volhard Award, which includes a €10,000 cash prize.

This year’s Franz Volhard Award of the German Society of Nephrology (DGfN) goes to Professor Kai Schmidt-Ott from Berlin. The honor was bestowed on him in Rostock on September 23 during the opening of the DGfN’s 13th annual meeting.

We' re developing automated systems that (...) sound the alarm before irreversible damage has occurred.
Prof. Dr. Kai Schmidt-Ott
Professor Kai Schmidt-Ott Leader of the Molecular and Translational Kidney Research Lab

Schmidt-Ott’s research labs at Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) and at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin are working to unlock the molecular mechanisms underlying kidney development and kidney diseases. This involves searching for ways to detect kidney injury early on and treat it optimally. As medical site director of the Department of Nephrology and Internal Intensive Care Medicine on Charité’s Campus Benjamin Franklin (CBF), he encounters such cases every day. That’s because nearly one in five hospital patients suffers from acute kidney injury (AKI) during the course of their hospital stay, usually occurring in association with serious infections, major surgeries or other medical interventions.

Recognizing the first signs of kidney injury

Kidney failure is currently typically detected at a late stage, often because the key diagnostic marker – serum creatinine concentration – is slow to react, taking 24–48 hours to reflect changes in kidney function. “That’s why we are developing automated systems that use artificial intelligence to interpret lab values and test results in short time intervals and sound the alarm before irreversible damage has occurred,” explains Schmidt-Ott.

Another focus of the nephrologist’s work is new biomarkers that enable a more precise differential diagnosis of AKI. “It’s very likely that a single marker will not be sufficient,” he says. “We are working towards creating molecular precision diagnostics so that we can choose the right therapy for each individual patient.”

Detecting diseased kidney cells with single-cell sequencing

Single-cell analysis: Coded cell samples during their transport inside minute droplets.

His team has therefore been working intensively for several years on high-resolution molecular diagnostic methods that can detect molecular dysfunction in each individual cell of the injured kidney. The goal is to decipher the disease-relevant “molecular response” of the kidney cells on the basis of molecular differences at the single-cell level. To this end Schmidt-Ott – in collaboration with partners in and outside of Berlin – is utilizing novel methods like single-cell sequencing for the high-resolution sequencing of genetic information and its transcription. This requires researchers to move the individual cells across a chip, where they are tagged with a bar code and packed into tiny emulsion droplets. The procedure allows the RNA – the part of the genetic material that the cell had just transcribed – to be sequenced and later reassigned to the cell. As a result, the transcription of the genetic material in each individual cell can be decoded with high precision. “The data obtained is very extensive and is processed using complex computer algorithms, to which a substantial part of our research is now devoted,” explains Schmidt-Ott. “Our aim is to further develop these methods, translate them to the clinic and ultimately use them to benefit patients.”

Dedicated physician and researcher

Professor Kai Schmidt-Ott

Schmidt-Ott started combining research with clinical practice early on. Already during his medical training, which included stints at Freie Universität Berlin, the University of Florida in Gainesville and Columbia University in New York City, he linked his work as a physician to his interest in kidney research. In 2007 he returned to Berlin and set up a junior research group at the MDC, which was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) as part of its Emmy Noether Programme. At the same time, Schmidt-Ott began working as an internist at Charité. Since 2014 he has held a professorship in nephrology. Schmidt-Ott has received numerous awards for his research.

With the Franz Volhard Award, the German Society for Nephrology honors the internist Franz Volhard (1872–1950), whose research explored the connection between high blood pressure, kidney disease and heart disease.

Text: Catarina Pietschmann


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Professor Kai Schmidt-Ott is doing research at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) and at the Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin to unlock the molecular mechanisms underlying kidney development and kidney diseases. For this he receives this year's Franz Volhard Award of the DGfN. Foto: DGfN



Prof. Kai Schmidt-Ott
Molecular and Translational Kidney Research Lab
Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC)

Jana Ehrhardt-Joswig
Editor, Communications Department
Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC)
Tel.: +49-(0)30-9406-2118 or

Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC)


The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) is one of the world’s leading biomedical research institutions. Max Delbrück, a Berlin native, was a Nobel laureate and one of the founders of molecular biology. At the MDC’s locations in Berlin-Buch and Mitte, researchers from some 60 countries analyze the human system – investigating the biological foundations of life from its most elementary building blocks to systems-wide mechanisms. By understanding what regulates or disrupts the dynamic equilibrium in a cell, an organ, or the entire body, we can prevent diseases, diagnose them earlier, and stop their progression with tailored therapies. Patients should benefit as soon as possible from basic research discoveries. The MDC therefore supports spin-off creation and participates in collaborative networks. It works in close partnership with Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in the jointly run Experimental and Clinical Research Center (ECRC), the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) at Charité, and the German Center for Cardiovascular Research (DZHK). Founded in 1992, the MDC today employs 1,600 people and is funded 90 percent by the German federal government and 10 percent by the State of Berlin.