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Jochen Utikal: from melanocytes to pluripotent stem cells

Dr. Jochen Utikal, a dermatologist at the Mannheim Medical Faculty at the University of Heidelberg has received the Hella Bühler Prize with a purse of 100,000 euros for his outstanding scientific research on the production of induced pluripotent stem cells from pigment cells of human skin.

PD Dr. med. Jochen Utikal © UMM

The Hella Bühler Prize is now in its fifth year and is awarded to young researchers at the University of Heidelberg who have already attracted attention due to the outstanding scientific quality of their cancer research. This year's prize is awarded to Dr. Jochen Utikal, dermatologist at the Mannheim Medical Faculty at the University of Heidelberg.

Induced pluripotent stem cells

The prize is awarded to Dr. Utikal to support his work on pluripotent stem cells. During a research stay in Konrad Hochedlinger's laboratory at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Boston, USA, Utikal and his colleagues discovered how induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) could be successfully produced from melanocytes. Like embryonic stem cells, iPS cells have the ability to differentiate into practically all cell types and hence tissue. Since iPS cells can be produced without needing to destroy the embryo, there are no ethical concerns and the scientists hope that these cells will be able to largely replace research involving embryonic stem cells and that they will be used as the basis for cell replacement therapies. In addition, iPS cells have the decisive advantage that they can be withdrawn from the patients' own body cells, thereby preventing the danger of rejection once transplanted. iPS cells therefore have huge therapeutic potential.

Although it was previously possible to generate iPS cells from body cells, it was impossible to produce a high enough quantity. Dr. Utikal and his colleagues at the Harvard Medical School were able to show that mouse and human melanocytes could be converted into induced pluripotent stem cells in much higher quantities than was previously possible by using fibroblasts. The same is true for a malignant melanoma mouse cell line. In addition, neither melanocytes nor melanoma cells required the administration of the Sox 2 transcription factor, something that is normally required when using skin fibroblasts.

Hella Bühler Prize

The prize award ceremony took place in the Great Hall of the Old University © University of Heidelberg

 The Hella Bühler Prize, which is worth 100,000 euros, will enable Dr. Utikal to focus his future research on clarifying the mechanism involved in the conversion of melanocytes into iPS and gaining new insights in the development of tumours. The prize was awarded thanks to Dr. Hella Bühler (1910 - 2002), a dentist from Heidelberg who bequeathed her fortune to the University of Heidelberg in order to establish an annual prize honouring outstanding scientific achievements in cancer research. The prize will be officially awarded to Dr. Utikal in the Great Hall of the Old University on 30th April. The ceremony will start at 3 p.m. with a welcome address by Prof. Dr. Karlheinz Sonntag, vice-rector of the University of Heidelberg. Prof. Dr. Svante Päabo, Director of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig) will give a lecture on the "Origin of humans from the perspective of the Neanderthal valley". Prof. Dr. Sergij Goerdt, Director of the University Hospital of Dermatology, Venerology and Allergology Mannheim will give a speech in praise of Dr. Utikal who will then close the celebrations with a talk entitled "From melanocytes to pluripotent stem cells".

The prizewinner

Dr. Jochen Utikal is chief physician at the University Hospital of Dermatology, Venerology and Allergology, the Dermatology Mannheim Excellence Centre of the state of Baden-Württemberg. Utikal studied medicine in Ulm and did his doctoral thesis on melanoma in 2001. He was assistant physician at the Mannheim Medical Hospital from 2002 to 2006 before moving on to the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital of the Harvard University in Boston in 2007. A Dr. Mildred Scheel Foundation grant covered his two-year stay in the laboratory of Prof. Konrad Hochedlinger, one of the world’s leading experts in the area of iPS cell technology, where he focused on the production of iPS cells from melanocytes.

He returned to Mannheim at the beginning of 2009 and habilitated in dermatology and venerology at the Mannheim Medical Faculty. Dr. Utikal is a medical specialist in skin diseases and has undergone special training in allergology and medicinal tumour therapy.


Utikal J, Maherali N, Kulalert W, Hochedlinger K: Sox2 is dispensable for the reprogramming of melanocytes and melanoma cells into induced pluripotent stem cells. J. Cell Sci 122: 3502-3510 (2009)

Utikal J, Polo JM, Stadtfeldt M, Maherali N, Kulalert W, Walsh RM, Khalil A, Rheinwald JG, Hochedlinger K: Immortalization eliminates a roadblock during cellular reprogramming into iPS cells. Nature 460: 1145-1148 (2009).

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