Laboratory-based regeneration of human cartilage and muscle tissue is his strong suit: Prof. Dr. Wilhelm K. Aicher brings his expertise in cellular and molecular biology to research focusing on the development of innovative therapies for the treatment of tissue damage. Successes such as a knee cartilage made from autologous (patients’ own) cells show that Aicher is on the right track.
Scientists working at the boundaries of classical disciplines inevitably end up in an interdisciplinary field such as regenerative medicine. Prof. Dr. Wilhelm K. Aicher from the University of Tübingen is a highly competent practitioner in this field. Aicher originally studied biochemistry, moving towards immunology during his doctoral work at the Tübingen-based Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. He received his doctoral degree in the mid-1980s for research into the cellular and molecular characterisation of receptors located on immune system cells. The move to the MPI required Aicher to make a far-reaching decision relating to his human medicine studies which he had been doing alongside his biochemistry studies. “I had already obtained all the qualifications necessary to do the preliminary medical examination. However, I decided not to enrol for the exam. My work at the MPI meant that I did not have any spare time for medical studies,” said Aicher. Aicher has no real regrets about this decision, probably because it was never really his lifetime’s ambition to practice medicine. “At no time did I intend to become a general practitioner. I was more interested in medical research,” said Aicher. While he was doing his doctoral thesis at the MPI for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Aicher also spent some time in the USA. “My work at the MPI required me to develop new specific antibodies and our cooperation partners at the Institute of Microbiology at the University of Alabama (UAB) in Birmingham had better conditions than us for developing the antibodies. And as I did my doctoral thesis at the MPI, I was able to spend some time as a guest of the Institute of Microbiology,” said Aicher who then went on to write his doctoral thesis in English, which was far from being standard practice in Germany in the 1990s. He returned to Germany to do his doctoral examination and then went back to the UAB to do his post-doctoral studies in the field of rheumatology, for which he received a German Rheumatism Research Centre grant.
Aicher returned to Germany in 1992 and continued his work in the field of rheumatology for around four years. He was project leader of the “Rheumatic Diseases” research group led by Prof. Dr. Hans Hartmut Peter from the University of Freiburg and Prof. Dr. Klaus Eichmann from the Max Planck Institute of Immunbiology. This was the first clinical research group established by the German Research Foundation (DFG) that involved both medical doctors and natural scientists. Aicher moved on to Tübingen in 1996 where he was appointed head of the “Cell Biology Research Laboratory” in the Department of Orthopaedics at Tübingen University Hospital. While working in Tübingen, Aicher came into contact with two scientists who were the catalysts for a further move into a different area of research.“My work on rheumatological joint degeneration brought me into contact with Dr. Christoph Gaissmaier and Dr. Jürgen Fritz from the BG Trauma Hospital in Tübingen who were working on chondrocyte and osteoblast cultures.” The two researchers were focusing on different issues related to the potential use of patients’ own cells for the treatment of cartilage and bone damage. Amongst other things, the two were working on the analysis of the vitality of cells in culture and whether these cells expressed the right genes. As I had a great deal of experience in the field of molecular genetics, I was able to assist them in their analyses,” said Aicher. This work, which also involved researchers from the NMI Natural and Medical Sciences Institute at the University of Tübingen in Reutlingen, provided the basis for the establishment of a company called TETEC AG, amongst other things. TETEC AG is a specialist in the production of autologous cartilage tissue for use in regenerative medicine and is now one of the leading companies in this field.
Aicher regards his contributions to the development of autologous cartilage tissue for use in regenerative medicine as a particular highlight in his professional career. Over time, his own research focus has also shifted towards regenerative medicine. However, he has remained in the Department of Orthopaedics at the University Hospital of Tübingen. In 1999, he qualified as professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Tübingen (German: habilitation) and was promoted to associate professor of molecular medicine in 2005. Since 2006, Aicher has been the vice director of the Centre for Regenerative Biology and Medicine (ZRM), which was jointly founded by the Medical Faculty of the University of Tübingen and the Tübingen University Hospital. Initially, Aicher’s research focused on the regeneration of joint cartilage, in particular in the knee. “Since joint cartilage is not supplied with blood, it is relatively easy to produce replacement tissue from the patients’ own cells. However, the cartilage used for transplants needs to be stable and needs to be adapted to the spatial conditions of the knee. We have developed and patented specific biomaterials for the cultivation of cartilage and achieved a breakthrough with the development of a scaffold material that had the structure of an accordion. This scaffold material enables us to turn the width shrinkage of the cartilage substitute into a height shrinkage, which is far easier to deal with when it comes to treating knee joint cartilage defects,” said Aicher.
In addition to the biotechnological improvement of cartilage engineering, the researchers also improved the surgical method. These two improvements led to a groundbreaking therapy known as scaffold augmented autologous chondrocyte transplantation (ACT). Prior to this, a chondrocyte suspension had to be injected into a piece of periosteum, which was carefully sown together in order to prevent blood leaking. Standard treatment now involves the use of a piece of cartilage tissue punched out from the scaffold material and fixed to the site of operation with only a few stitches. Patients now have cartilage substitutes produced from their own cells. Although the cartilage substitute is not an exact copy of the original tissue, it is nevertheless very similar. The work on ACT has recently been complemented by new projects concentrating on the regeneration of intervertebral disc damage. These projects are funded by the BMBF as part of the REGiNA – Health Region for Regenerative Medicine concept.
Another of the IZST’s products is the medical technology bachelor’s programme that started in autumn 2010. Aicher lectures in this programme as well as in the molecular medicine course that is offered by the University of Tübingen. “I have also been offering a course on modern regenerative medicine concepts for medical students for some years now,” said Aicher explaining that this course provides insights into transfusion, transplantation and tissue engineering. “I also feel it is very important to train medical students in key aspects of basic research,” said Aicher. Aicher thus neatly completes his circle of activities aimed at driving regenerative medicine forward and making it into one of the region’s unique selling points.
Further information:Prof. Dr. Wilhelm K. AicherCentre for Regenerative Biology and Medicine (ZRM)Department of OrthopaedicsUniversity Hospital TübingenWaldhörnlestr. 2272072 TübingenE-mail: RFiT(at)uni-tuebingen.de