IMBA – The year in review: 2016 brought top-level research funding and scientific milestones

January 03, 2017

In 2016, IMBA – Institute of Molecular Biotechnology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences received the prestigious “Proof of Concept” grant from the European Research Council (ERC) as well as two fellowships in the renowned EMBO Young Investigator Programme. A series of scientific achievements could pave the way for new treatment options in the future, including the possible prevention of breast cancer, new treatments for deadly fungal infections, and improvements in assisted reproduction.

ERC research grant for revolutionary models of the brain
Jürgen Knoblich, deputy director at IMBA, received the prestigious “Proof of Concept” grant for the second time. “Our project uses 3D brain organoids developed in my research group. We want to investigate the development of the brain in humans as well as neurological diseases directly in human tissue,” said Knoblich. He published the trailblazing development of a three-dimensional model of the brain made of human stem cells for the first time in 2013. It allows the development of the brain in the early embryo stages to be observed. The project aims to provide fundamental insights into the onset of neurological diseases and point the way to strategies for new treatments.

IMBA receives as many EMBO YIP awards for young researchers as all of Germany
Two IMBA team leaders, Kikuë Tachibana-Konwalski and Stefan Ameres, were selected for the highly competitive EMBO Young Investigator Programme in 2016, which supports young scientists in achieving their full potential as world-class researchers. Josef Penninger, scientific director at the IMBA, is proud of his colleagues’ achievement: “I’m filled with pride that two of the 25 prizes awarded went to IMBA scientists. Germany, with ten times the population of Austria, also received only two awards. This assessment by an independent panel confirms that we are on the right path of first-in-class basic research.”
The award winners will receive a number of benefits throughout the three-year term of the program, including funding to help them develop their research group, participation in professional networks, and access to scientific synergies. Kikuë Tachibana-Konwalski’s research is dedicated to the molecular control mechanisms of egg cells and zygotes, with the aim of achieving greater understanding of age-related genetic mutations and infertility in women. In her many publications in 2016, she shed light on the mysterious world of the egg cell. Stefan Ameres and his group conduct research into small RNAs and how they regulate the activation of certain genes.

Scientific highlights of 2016 at the IMBA

Scientific explanation for Down syndrome and for control and repair mechanisms in paternal and maternal genome fusion
The team led by Tachibana-Konwalski was able to deliver important findings in the field of modern reproductive medicine in 2016.
First came a scientific explanation for the age-related occurrence of Down syndrome. The chromosomes of the egg cell are held together by a protein ring called cohesin, which becomes brittle with age. That can have an impact on meiosis and lead to a flawed distribution of the chromosomes. These findings, published in the journal “Current Biology”, also explained why fertility decreases as a woman ages.
A publication in the renowned journal “Cell” showed how the egg cell deletes the memory of the sperm cell and repairs damage in the male DNA so that it can form a new living being from just one cell.

New treatment options for deadly fungal infections
Each year, 1.5 million people die of a Candida fungal infection. The fungus can spread throughout the entire body and trigger dangerous blood poisoning and massive organ damage, especially in persons with compromised immune systems.  Scientists in Josef Penninger’s group have now been able to identify an important mechanism that inhibits a response by the immune system and lowers its resistance to the fungus: the enzyme CBL-B. But blocking this enzyme boosts the immune system and activates its defense against the fungal pathogen. The insights from this study are an important milestone in the possible development of treatments for a systemic Candida infection. The findings were published in the journal Nature Medicine in 2016.

A medication for the prevention of breast cancer
Over 20 years ago, Josef Penninger identified the correlation between osteoporosis and hormonal breast cancer. RANKL is the main molecule involved in bone metabolism; it is regulated by the sex hormones. If RANKL is active, bone tissue diminishes as growth in the mammary glands is stimulated. But if it is overactive, that can lead to tumors and cancer in the breast. The active ingredient denosumab bonds with RANKL and is already approved for the treatment of osteoporosis and bone metastases. Thanks to the new findings of the IMBA researchers, it can now be used to treat the hereditary types of breast cancer as well. Women who have a mutation in the BRCA1 gene have an 80% probability of developing breast cancer at some time in their lives. The next step after the study’s publication in the journal “Cell” is to conduct in-depth clinical trials, which are already scheduled to begin this year.

A protein with the properties of soap keeps cell division running smoothly
Mitosis (cell division) is a complex and critical process. If it is not regulated properly, the cells can degenerate, leading to cancer in the worst case. Daniel Gerlich’s research group at the IMBA has now been able to solve one of the important molecular mysteries of cell division. The researchers published their sensational findings in the journal “Nature”, proving a surface-active property of proteins for the first time. The protein Ki-67 envelops the chromosomes like a cloak, and has physical attributes that are similar to soap. It helps the chromosomes to glide past one another during the division process and prevents them from sticking.

How our genome provides protection from mutations The two IMBA research groups led by Julius Brennecke and Stefan Ameres set a milestone in the field of RNA biology in 2016. For the first time, the question of how and where in the cells a legion of “piRNAs” are formed against DNA parasites has been answered: tiny RNA sequences that protect our genome from mutations by attaching themselves to “jumping genes”, thus blocking them. In the journal “Nature”, the researchers reported how two different systems are fine-tuned to one another to cut these tiny RNAs down to the right size at different locations in the cell. “Scissors” named Nibbler and Zucchini are involved in this process.

The Vienna Biocenter in the third district of Vienna has established itself as the premier location for life sciences in Central Europe and is a world-leading international bio-medical research center.


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