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Elke Guenther: inspired by basic research and application-oriented

The electrical activities of sensory systems are an exciting field of research. For Prof. Dr. Elke Guenther from the NMI in Reutlingen, the use of findings for medical applications has a very special appeal. The biologist is head of the Department of Electrophysiology at the NMI, where her work involves safety pharmacology, the development of biosensors and the characterisation of ion channels in the cell membranes in a broad range of different organ systems.

Grabbing opportunities when they arise often requires the courage to make quick decisions. And Elke Guenther owes her remarkably rapid rise to positions of responsibility to exactly this kind of courage. Her doctorate that she completed in the late-1980s at the Eye Hospital in Munich, financed by a grant from the Max Planck Society, investigated the visual system, more precisely, the colour vision of cats.
Patch clamping is used to investigate the effect of pharmaceuticals on the activity of ion channels (hERG channels). This electrophysiological method is the gold standard in its field. (Photo: NMI Reutlingen)
The sensory cells of the retina are divided into rods and cones and are responsible for colour and light-dark vision of both humans and cats. These cell types convert light impulses into electrical impulses. Elke Guenther’s doctorate involved the examination of the electrical activity of the cells using special electrodes. At the time, she was part of Prof. Dr. Eberhart Zrenner’s research group at the Eye Hospital in Munich. In 1989, Zrenner then transferred from the Eye Hospital to Tübingen where he would later develop artificial retinal implants in the company Retina Implant. After finishing her doctorate in 1989, Elke Guenther continued her research career at the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry in Martinsried. This was an important step in her career since it gave her the opportunity to expand her method spectrum. At the MPI, she investigated the electrical response of retinal ganglion cells exposed to neurotrophic substances.

Rapid rise to positions of responsibility – a double-edged sword

After only a year at the MPI, the then 32-year-old was offered the opportunity of setting up her own research group at the University Eye Hospital in Tübingen. Elke Guenther accepted on impulse. “With hindsight, I think this was slightly too soon. I now feel that young researchers benefit from a longer post-doc period. The advantage of waiting is that one still has a great deal of freedom to develop one’s own ideas. Administrative work comes soon enough,” said Guenther speaking from her own experience.

She still pursues her scientific goals in a very single-minded way. “I had clear ideas right from the start and wanted to remain in the field of retinal research,” said Elke Guenther. She is extremely interested in how retinal cells form networks. Using electrophysiological methods, she examined, amongst other things, the response of ganglion cells during maturation and looked into the structure-function relationship of ion channels in the cell membrane that govern the flow of ions and hence the electrical activity of cells.

Permanent focus: electrical activities in the retina

At the University Eye Hospital, Elke Guenther also participated in a collaborative research centre (SFB). As part of the SFB 430 “Cellular mechanisms of sensory processes and neuronal interactions” she headed up a basic research project looking into how receptors on the cell surface alter during retinal differentiation and in the case of retinal diseases. During this period she also achieved a major milestone in her career: “We found out that the regulation of ion channels in retinal cells is different from that of the cells of the visual cortex. In the retina, light triggers changes in the ion channels,” said Guenther summarising the findings of her team who were able to show that it was possible to maintain ion channels, and hence the retinal cells, in a juvenile state by growing them in the dark.
Portrait of Professor Elke Guenther
Prof. Dr. Elke Guenther has been head of the Department of Electrophysiology at the NMI in Reutlingen since 2002. © NMI Reutlingen
During this scientifically very productive phase, Elke Guenther was offered a fantastic opportunity: In 2002, the NMI in Reutlingen decided to expand its electrophysiology activities and she was offered the post of head of research. She had already been working in collaboration with a number of NMI scientists and she accepted without hesitation. This change led to her discovering completely new sides of herself: “For a long time, I saw myself as a typical university researcher. The offer came at a time when I wanted to do something new as well as to combine basic research with application. That the application-oriented work at the NMI was the right thing for me to do very quickly became clear,” said Guenther.

Pleased about the direct benefit of the research results

Entrepreneurial thinking and activities as new challenges © NMI
Elke Guenther still works at the NMI in Reutlingen and enjoys her work at the interface of basic research and industry. The large number of exciting and sophisticated projects certainly also contributes to her sense of satisfaction. Elke Guenther is currently part of a cooperative project focusing on the development of an artificial biochemical synapse that releases neutrotransmitters in the same way as its natural counterpart. Guenther is hoping that this synapse might become an alternative to purely electronic retinal implants.

Another cooperative project in which she is involved focuses on the development of a human cardiosensor and is taking a completely different direction. It involves the development of a test method for assessing the effect of pharmaceuticals on human cardiac tissue. Since drugs have side effects on cardiac activity, this is a field with enormous future potential. The project will use tissue samples from patients as well as tissue produced from stem cells. Guenther’s team at the NMI will be in charge of the validation studies and will cultivate heart cell cultures on microelectrode arrays (MEAs).

Entrepreneurial thinking and activities as new challenges

Elke Guenther also uses MEAs as part of the commercial developments of NMI TT GmbH. Electrical recordings of certain ion channels from animal heart cells are mandatory in safety pharmacology in order to exclude potential dangerous side effects such as cardiac arrhythmia prior to approval. “With the new laboratory for drug screening and safety pharmacology we have to some extent become business people,” said Guenther who hopes to further expand her entrepreneurial activities. “My next goal is to establish an effective and functional service institution at the NMI TT GmbH focusing on ion channel screening. This will help bring in money and will also make us a valuable partner for the pharmaceutical industry. As Guenther’s own personal qualities include curiosity, spontaneity and willingness to take risks, she believes that such qualities are important for other scientists. Her advice to young researchers is “to not be afraid of doing something unplanned and keep looking outside their own discipline as well as getting involved in completely new things.” When Elke Guenther seeks inspiration, she completely changes her thought structures. “I like to learn languages, I find it very relaxing. I have spent some time learning Chinese; it is a language full of pictures that promotes associative thinking. I also find sudokus very relaxing,” said Guenther who also enjoys going to the opera or concerts at least once a month in order to replenish her mental stores for her wide range of professional activities.

leh - 2 September 2008
© BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH

Further information:
NMI Reutlingen
Prof. Dr. Elke Guenther
Markwiesenstr. 55
72770 Reutlingen
Tel.: +49 (0)7121 51530-54
E-mail: guenther@nmi.de

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/press-release/elke-guenther-inspired-by-basic-research-and-application-oriented