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Marcus Groettrup: Discovery in the kingdom of cells

Prof. Marcus Groettrup has been closely investigating the daily defence battle of the human immune system for a number of years. The researcher from Constance has now found a substance that has the potential to revolutionise the treatment of rheumatism.

Prof. Dr. Marcus Groettrup is an immunologist at Constance University. © University of Constance

Some big discoveries can come from small research kingdoms. The researcher, Marcus Groettrup, has sparked off a revolution in his laboratories that occupy just half a floor of the University of Constance: he has made a discovery that may eventually benefit millions of rheumatism patients. The biochemist and his team of five researchers have discovered something the research community has spent many years looking for: a substance that might potentially be used to treat diseases such as rheumatism or multiple sclerosis in an effective and gentle way (see information on the right-hand side).

Although the effect of the substance has so far only been shown in mice, Groettrup is fairly confident that it will also have a similar effect in humans. "The probability that the substance is effective in humans is very high," says the 45-year-old, who has been head of the Department of Immunology at Constance University for the last seven years. Nevertheless, it is not 100% certain that Groettrup's discovery will eventually become a drug for human treatment. "We may find that the drug has side effects in people that it does not have in mice," said Groettrup, slightly damping the hopes attached to the human clinical trials that are about to begin.

Drug for many indications

Groettrup’s delight and pride with the discovery is obvious. “Research can be quite frustrating. Therefore I am delighted that we have hit the bull’s eye with our discovery,” said Groettrup, who originally comes from the city of Bremen. The decisive experiments were carried out three years ago. And as is often the case with groundbreaking discoveries, pure chance played a major role. An interesting observation during a mouse experiment put the researchers on the right track. It led to the discovery of a substance that is able to specifically stop inflammation in mice with autoimmune diseases, without having to switch off the immune system as a whole.

PR-957 is the rather unspectacular name of the researchers’ substance, a substance that is produced by Proteolix, a Californian company that had originally developed it for the treatment of leukaemia. Since the substance did not lead to the desired effect, the Americans – who had in the meantime learnt of Groettrup’s discovery – contacted the Constance researchers in order to test the substance for the possibility of using it for other types of treatment. The result was that Groettrup’s team not only proved the substance’s effect in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and a type of diabetes, but also discovered an effect in inflammatory diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease.

The breakthrough is also a result of cross-border scientific cooperation. Michael Basler from the Kreuzlingen-based Thurgau Biotechnology Institute has made a considerable contribution to the discovery.

The publication of the results in the renowned journal “Nature Medicine” on 14th June, has started the race for the development of a drug. Proteolix is currently preparing the first clinical studies to test the effect of the substance in humans. Groettrup is not involved in these studies. He believes that it will take four to five years before the drug is available in pharmacies, if no unexpected obstacles occur. Asked whether he would consider pursuing the further development of the drug as a well-paid industrial researcher, Groettrup, who lives with his wife and two children in the city of Constance, demurs: “I quite like the combination of teaching and research, I don’t feel that I am missing anything at the university.” The University of Constance, one of a handful of elite universities in Germany, is lucky to have Groettrup among its scientists, working hard in his small kingdom.

Further information:
Prof. Dr. Marcus Groettrup
University of Constance
Department of Immunology
Universitätsstraße 10
78457 Konstanz
Tel.: 0049 7531 882130
E-mail: Marcus.Groettrup(at)uni-konstanz.de

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/press-release/marcus-groettrup-discovery-in-the-kingdom-of-cells