ÖGMBT: Children's cancer research, energy production in cells, vascular models on the chip: Awards presented to young Austrian researchers

13th ÖGMBT Annual Meeting: outstanding publications honored with Life Science Research Awards Austria 2021

The Austrian Association of Molecular Life Sciences and Biotechnology (ÖGMBT) on Monday honored five young researchers for their outstanding work. On the occasion of the 13th Annual Meeting of the ÖGMBT, the Life Science Research Awards Austria 2021 went to Domen Kampjut (Institute of Science and Technology Austria), Benjamin Salzer (St. Anna Children's Cancer Research) and Charlotte Zajc (St. Anna Children's Cancer Research/BOKU). The prizes, each worth 3,000 euros, were awarded with the support of the Federal Ministry for Digital and Economic Affairs (BMDW). The two Life Science PhD Awards Austria went to Stefan Terlecki-Zaniewicz (University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna) and Barbara Bachmann (Technical University of Vienna).

The award ceremony took place with limited audience, due to Corona the lectures were broadcasted online this year. Federal Minister Margarete Schramböck: "Research and innovation strengthen Austria as a business location and create highly qualified jobs. This applies to both applied and basic research. I would like to highlight St. Anna Children's Cancer Research as a very positive example, which was involved in three Life Science Research Awards Austria this year. Thanks to the globally significant basic research at this institute, the cure rate for leukemia has been increased from 20 percent in 1970 to around 85 percent in the meantime."

Detailed insight into one of the foundations of life

This year, the Life Science Research Award Austria 2021 in the category basic research goes to Domen Kampjut from the Institute of Science and Technology (IST Austria). In his paper published in “Science“, the three-dimensional structure of the so-called "complex I" is visualized by a high-resolution electron microscopic technique (cryo-electron microscopy). This complex I is a key site in energy production in almost all organisms. It has been described in standard textbooks of cell biology and biochemistry since its discovery. Kampjut has now succeeded for the first time in clarifying in detail at the molecular level how this complex, which consists of 45 protein chains and is therefore "huge" in molecular biological dimensions, functions. These findings improve our understanding of a fundamental biological process that plays a crucial role in life.

For the second year in a row, Benjamin Salzer of St. Anna Children's Cancer Research (CCRI) was honored - this time in the category of applied research. He is researching the targeted control and fine-tuning of the activity of immune cells known as CAR T cells. These can specifically dock to cancer cells and kill them. Until now, CAR T-cell therapies have only been used in the clinic for certain forms of blood cancer (leukemias). With the new method, it should also be possible to successfully treat other cancers with CAR T cells in the future.

Immunotherapy against brain tumors in children and adults

The special prize “scientific excellence and societal impact”, awarded for the fourth time in 2021, went to Charlotte Zajc from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU) and St. Anna Children's Cancer Research. She discovered a novel method to improve CAR T-cell therapies, which are increasingly used to treat blood cancers in children and adults. An orally administered drug should make it possible in the future for currently untreatable cancers, such as brain tumors, to be contained with CAR T cells. The paper Zajc submitted has appeared in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Explanation for particularly problematic form of leukemia

NUP98-fusion-related leukemias have a particularly unfavorable prognosis in both children and adults. The molecular mechanisms behind this were previously unknown. Stefan Terlecki-Zaniewicz from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna has now been able to explain an important part of these mechanisms. For this he received the Life Science PhD Award Austria 2021 in the category basic research. Terlecki-Zaniewicz is currently working at St. Anna Children's Cancer Research.

Chronic degenerative diseases are becoming increasingly common and thus have a special social significance. Barbara Bachmann of the Technical University of Vienna, Institute of Applied Synthetic Chemistry, is developing organ-on-a-chip systems to apply mechanical stimuli to cellular systems. An organ-on-a-chip is a biochip that artificially replicates organ function. Bachmann has developed such tissue models for vessels and cartilage. The insights this provides are important for improving the efficacy of vaccines and chemotherapeutics delivered through the lymphatic system. Her work also provides important insights into the mechanobiology of cartilage, where dysfunction leads to arthritis. Her research has already led to several patents and a company formation. For her work, she received the 2021 Life Science PhD Award in the category applied research.

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