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Alfred Nordheim – basic research for the good of society

Despite having thousands of applicable ideas and having set up his own company, Prof. Alfred Nordheim sees himself as a true basic scientist. At this year’s International Genetics Congress in Berlin, the director of the Interfaculty Institute of Cell Biology at the University of Tübingen was elected president of the International Genetics Federation (IGF).

“I am not a financial manager and I do not know the pharmaceutical market very well,” said Alfred Nordheim. “I’d prefer to leave the application of my findings to other people.” Is this understatement or just modesty? After all, Nordheim founded Proteomed GmbH in Tübingen in 1999, a biotechnology company that merged with a company in Mainz, Germany a year later and has since operated under the name of Proteosys AG, which currently employs 25 people. A few years later, in 2003, Nordheim founded the Proteom Centrum Tübingen which has since become a well-established proteomics centre in Tübingen. However, the director of the Interfaculty Institute of Cell Biology in Tübingen likes to take a back seat in his successful entrepreneurial ventures and he “feels far more at home with hypothesis-driven academic research”.

Molecular geneticist Prof. Alfred Nordheim from Tübingen (Photo:©Proteom Centrum Tübingen)
The successful geneticist almost ended up in aerospace technology. One of his former teachers in the city of Philippsthal (Hesse) inspired Nordheim’s interest in the universe and the stars, which led to him building a telescope and studying aerospace engineering at the Technical University in Berlin for two semesters. “But I didn’t exactly enjoy subjects like instrumentology and tool design,” said Nordheim who was much more interested in basic science. He switched to biology, but the short detour into aerospace engineering left its mark. “The intensive study of the basics of physics and chemistry clearly affected my biology studies, which means that I am very interested in the analytical side of science,” said Nordheim explaining his early inclination for molecular biology, which at that time was still a fledgling science.

An inclination becomes a passion

Nordheim completed his biology studies at the Free University of Berlin in seven semesters and did his degree thesis in the Welsh city of Bangor where he spent some months doing research at the Institute of Soil Sciences. He focused on the genetics of soil bacteria that degrade substances such as oil or herbicides. “This was a fantastic project,” said Nordheim waxing lyrical about his time in Bangor.

The period he spent at the Soil Sciences Institute was an important step on his road to becoming a geneticist. In the mid-1970s, Germany lagged far behind England and America in terms of molecular genetics. “The links with the Nazi dictatorship had a strong impact on human genetics in Germany,” says Nordheim. In Germany, the field of genetics took several decades to recover and regain the trust it once had. Foreign exchange scientists with new ideas and new methods were a necessary part of the revival of German genetics. The fact that the recent International Genetics Congress was hosted in Germany for the first time since 1927, and for the second time ever in Germany, is for Nordheim a clear sign that confidence in German science has been regained and German genetics is on par with the international field of genetics.

The young researcher also experienced the importance of ‘migration’ as his career progressed. In the late 1970s, Nordheim did his doctorate at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Genetics in Dahlem, where he was one of the first German scientists to learn DNA cloning techniques in the research group led by Ken Timmis, a British scientist who came to Dahlem from the USA. After his doctorate, he spent his postdoctoral training period at the MIT in Boston and brought newly acquired knowledge about the structure of nucleic acids with him when he returned home.

It seems that the 56-year-old researcher is now ready to pass on his experience through his new post as President of the International Genetics Federation. During his IGF presidency, Nordheim has plans to improve communication between the national genetics associations as well as improving the genetics training in developmental and threshold countries, which he hopes to reach through the financing of exchange programmes. His vision goes far beyond the support of high-quality research in these countries. “Look at Africa, for example, and the country’s fight against HIV,” said Nordheim emphasising the relevance of his project with a well-known example. He believes that acceptance of the genetic basis of this infectious disease in all classes of the population is a necessary prerequisite for successfully implementing anti-AIDS health programmes. “This is only possible if such countries have their own research institutions to enable them to participate in the resolution of this problem.” He also hopes to harness the research boom in Asia by building bridges within the science community and establishing effective communication before the research-strong and the newly aspiring countries end up in a competitive situation. Nordheim believes that this can be best achieved through young people.

Goal: Basic research for the good of society

A detailed view of scientific issues, combined with the awareness of the societal and political dimensions of science is what best characterises the researcher from Tübingen and this is how he also approaches his own research. “I would like to see basic research turned into applications for the good of society,” said Nordheim, who would, however, like others to take on the “goal-oriented pursuit of the application interests”. “It is not my primary objective to establish a company and become rich,” said Nordheim, rejecting any scepticism vis-à-vis his industrial interests: “I am pleased if a company can benefit from my findings.”

The geneticist is excited about the future of his discipline and expects interesting progress to come from the sequencing methods that are becoming quicker and quicker as well as less costly. Increasing numbers of genomes will be sequenced and will then be able to be compared with each other – this represents huge progress in the causal research of diseases. Nordheim expects that in future it will be possible to compare the genome of tissue samples of 50 cancer patients. “This will provide us with statistically solid information on the genetic basis of diseases.” However, before this is possible, sequencing must become a lot cheaper. At present, the sequencing of a complete genome costs about 150,000 dollars. This is extraordinarily cheap considering that the sequencing of the first genome cost several million dollars. “And in comparison with the landing on the moon, it is dirt-cheap,” said Nordheim adding that “we will get much more than a Teflon pan from our efforts.”

dvr - 13 August 2008
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