Review: Science meets Business Day 2010 (part II)
The talks held during the second part of the afternoon also gave the audience exciting insights into the cooperation between research and industry. How can plant physiologists and seed developers work together to achieve an understanding of the processes happening in the germinating plant embryo in order to improve the seed quality of sugar beet? How can virologists find new ways to switch off the flu virus and develop a marketable vaccine in cooperation with industrial partners?
In the second part of the Science meets Business Day 2010, Dr. Uwe Fischer from Einbeck-based KWS SAAT AG provided insights into sugar beet breeding and seed production. In his tandem talk entitled “Genes, hormones and stress during seed germination and factors associated with the quality of sugar beet seeds”, Fischer presented his company as one of the top five international companies in the field of sugar beet seed breeding and production. Alongside sugar cane, sugar beet is one of the two most important sources for the production of sugar worldwide. In 2009 in Germany alone, 25.6 million t of sugar beet were harvested. “This makes it an important economic factor,” said Fischer. In 2010, KWS’ product portfolio contained around 200 seed varieties. Farmers are interested in seeds that are adapted to different environmental conditions and that produce high yields. This is why the KWS production process integrates different steps to guarantee seed quality, for example the removal of empty seed shells or shells that are too small, or the coating of the seeds with a fungicide layer. However, farmers cannot store processed seeds for very long. “This is why we have found that basic research has a lot to offer us,” said Fischer. “Once we understand what is happening inside the seeds, are we able to find out if we are able to modify them?”
Plant embryos and inhibited viruses
Fischer’s cooperation partner, Dr. Gerhard Leubner from the Faculty of Botany/Plant Physiology at the Institute of Biology II at the University of Freiburg, provided fascinating insights into the interior of germinating seeds and highlighted potential targets for interventions that enable researchers to modify the seeds. Leubner used tobacco to explain the physiological processes that govern the extrusion of the seed radicle from the protective seed shells. Hormones that govern these processes might for example increase or reduce the growth potential of the radicles as well alter the resistance of the seed shells. “Can the situation in tobacco seeds be transferred to sugar beet?” asked Leubner going on to add “yes, this is possible because all plants have common ancestors and hence part of their evolutionary history in common. We assume that plants have developed very similar mechanisms during evolution.” Leubner also presented the international vSeed research network, which is aimed at investigating the processes inside garden cress and Arabidopsis thaliana seeds using molecular biology, biomechanics and theoretical modelling methods. “We are investigating the characteristics of the different seed tissues and combining this knowledge with tissue-specific transcriptome analyses in order to decipher genetic and physiological relationships,” said Leubner. “Working in cooperation with KWS, we will subsequently try to transfer our findings to sugar beet in order to prolong the storage life of sugar beet seeds.”
The final tandem talk of the evening given by Prof. Dr. Martin Schwemmle from the Department of Virology at the Institute of Medical Microbiology and Hygiene at the Freiburg University Medical Centre and Dr. Ulrich Kessler from Zurich-based Pike Pharma GmbH was about the role of industry and basic research in saving lives. Schwemmle reminded the audience of last year’s pig flu epidemics. “This was a big pandemic, but we were lucky that it was not that devastating,” said Schwemmle pointing out that the pandemic led to the deaths of “only” 13,000 people and at the same time he warned that these numbers might drastically change in the future. Schwemmle also referred to the bird flu virus that continues to infect just a handful of people around the world. However, he warned that the virus might generate mutations and find a way to get into the human organism. His research on influenza viruses such as the bird flu virus led him to consider whether it may be possible to find alternatives for common vaccinations, such as Tamiflu to which the influenza viruses quickly adapt. After carrying out meticulous work on the molecular level, Schwemmle and his team of researchers discovered a completely new approach that enables them to use a short protein fragment for blocking the proliferation of the virus in human cells.
Hard work – small and big successes
“How can an idea that works in the Petri dish be turned into a medication?” asked Schwemmle. “A university research group cannot make this happen on their own.” This is why Schwemmle sought a cooperation agreement with a company. In the second part of the tandem talk, the CEO of Pike Pharma, Dr. Bernd Kessler, described the common project right through from the original idea to the first practical approach. “We scanned hundreds of small molecules,” said Kessler. “This took more or less a year, but in the end we discovered some suitable candidates.” Subsequently, the partners investigated the substances of interest in cell cultures. Can these substances prevent the proliferation of viruses in living systems? Kessler and Schwemmle have since carried out tests with mice and found that they were able to save infected animals. “Our next step will focus on the detailed investigation of these substances,” said Kessler. “Are the substances toxic? Can they be turned into a form that can be taken up by the human organism? How can the substances be introduced into cells?
Kessler and Schwemmle now receive support from ten additional research partners as well as financial support from the EU. "We hope that we will be able to turn this excellent idea into a drug within the next ten years," concluded Kessler.
The Science meets Business Day concluded with Dr. Bernd Dallmann, Chairman of Technology Foundation BioMed Freiburg, and Prof. Dr. Gunther Neuhaus, Director of the Centre for Applied Sciences (ZAB) at the University of Freiburg, awarding the "Prize for excellent performance in biotechnology" to a former Merian School high-school graduate, Marlen Oswald. This is the 5th year that the prize has been awarded. "I have been attending the Science meets Business Day for the last three years, and I am absolutely delighted to be awarded this prize," said Marlen Oswald, who is now studying medicine in Tübingen.