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Professor Achim Leutz of MDC Receives German Cancer Award - Three scientists share this year's prize

28.02.2007 - (idw) Max-Delbrück-Centrum für Molekulare Medizin (MDC) Berlin-Buch

The 2007 German Cancer Prize for experimental research goes to Professor Achim Leutz, of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) in Berlin-Buch, for "excellent" work on the development of blood cells and leukemias. Virologist Professor Lutz Gissmann, of the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg, will be given the award in the category "translational research," for work leading to the development of the first papilloma virus vaccine, which blocks cervical cancer. A third award in the area of clinical research goes to Professor Michael Weller of the University of Tübingen, who showed that malignant brain tumors deactivate the body's immune system by releasing a molecule called TGF-beta. The awards will be presented in a ceremony on March 1 in Frankfurt (Main), Germany, at the congress of the Working Group on Experimental Cancer Research. The prize carries a total value of 22,500 euros. Leutz, who heads the Cell Differentiation and Tumorigenesis Program at the MDC, is the fifth scientist from Berlin-Buch to win the prestigious German Cancer Prize. The focus of Professor Leutz' research is on "gene switches," proteins which control whether genes are used to make other proteins. This type of gene regulation is a fundamental process of life and controls every biological function, including cell division and regeneration.

Gene switches also control the production and maturation of blood cells. Leutz's work has homed in on a pair of proteins that help transform stem cells into specialized types of blood cells at the right time. Signals from the environment push the cells to specialize and stop dividing. The molecules C/EBP and Myb dock onto DNA, where they interpret the signals by changing patterns of active and silent genes. Blood cells with a mutant form of Myb, or a version of the molecule brought in by a leukemia virus, get stuck at an immature stage. They divide in an uncontrolled way, causing leukemia.

While the link between Myb and cancer has been known for decades, scientists have not understood exactly how the protein works. Previously, the Leutz laboratory found that the mutant Myb gene product fails to collaborate with C/EBP during gene regulation. Now Leutz and his colleagues have shown that healthy forms of the Myb molecule are able to change the chemistry of proteins called histones, which DNA is wrapped around. Defective versions carry out this transformation poorly.

A human cell contains so much DNA that it can only be stored and managed by packing it up with hundreds of types of proteins in a tangled mix called chromatin. Before a gene can be used, chromatin usually has to be rearranged, and Myb helps carry this out. Leutz's lab showed that in cells with mutant forms of Myb, the repacking doesn't work properly, and genes that are crucial for the development of blood aren't activated.

Another focus of the lab has been Ras, a tumor-causing protein. Ras passes along signals that reach the protein C/EBP, a gene switch like Myb. Leutz showed that Ras influences the behavior of a protein assembly called the "mediator." This machine acts as an adaptor between C/EBP and molecules that read genes to transform them into RNAs.

The work has added to scientists' understanding of how cells in the blood lineage become transformed from generic to specialized types, and emphasizes the close relationship between normal processes of development and defects that lead to cancer. "We are extremely pleased that Professor Leutz has won this well-deserved honor," says MDC Director Walter Birchmeier. "The aim of the MDC and its partners here in Buch is to translate findings from basic research into information and applications relevant to human health. Professor Leutz's work is an excellent example of the style of research that is possible in this environment. This award, and the past record of success, are external acknowledgements of the success of our approach."

Achim Leutz was born and grew up in Eberbach near Heidelberg and studied biology and sports at the University of Heidelberg. After completing his PhD in biology at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg in 1986, he did research at the State University of New York in Stony Brook (U.S.) for two years and then returned to the EMBL.

From 1990 to 1994 he led a research group at the Center for Molecular Biology at the University of Heidelberg and in 1994 was appointed head of the research group "Tumor Pathogenesis and Cell Differentiation" at MDC. In addition, the cancer researcher is Professor for Molecular Developmental Biology and Oncology at Humboldt University Berlin. In 2005, Professor Leutz was appointed member of the European Organization for Molecular Biology (EMBO) and was just recently appointed to the Central Commission for Biological Safety (ZKBS) in Germany.

Professor Leutz is the fifth scientist from Berlin-Buch to receive the German Cancer Award. Previous recipients from Berlin-Buch are Prof. Walter Birchmeier (MDC) and the cancer surgeon Prof. Peter M. Schlag (MDC/Charité - University Medicine Berlin) as well as Prof. Claus Scheidereit (MDC) and the hematologist and oncologist Prof. Bernd Dörken (MDC/Charité). Like the DKFZ, the MDC is a member of the Helmholtz Association, and has collaborated closely since its founding with clinicians of the Charité.

Barbara Bachtler
Press and Public Affairs
Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin-Buch
Robert-Rössle-Straße 10
13125 Berlin
Phone: +49 (0) 30 94 06 - 38 96
Fax: +49 (0) 30 94 06 - 38 33
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