Dr. Adelheid Cerwenka was awarded the Georges Köhler Prize 2009 for her outstanding achievements in her research on natural killer cells and their importance in the defence against tumours. The Georges Köhler Prize, which is sponsored by the Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche AG and awarded by the German Society of Immunology, comes with a purse of €3000. The prize is given to scientists under 40 for outstanding research into the immune system.
Adelheid Cerwenka is head of the “Innate Immunity” junior research group at the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ). Together with her team, Cerwenka is focusing on the innate immune system which constitutes the immediate defence against infection. It also attacks and removes cancer cells, usually long before the cells are able to do harm and develop into a tumour.Dr. Adelheid Cerwenka has a long-standing interest in natural killer cells (NK cells). These blood cells are part of the innate immune system. They can quickly recognise and eliminate cancer cells. In addition, they activate the acquired immune system to turn against cancer cells. Cerwenka and her team investigated the molecular processes involved and found a protein (RAE-1) on the surface of the cancer cells which is a recognition feature for the activating receptor NKG2D, found on natural killer cells. Once NK cells have identified a damaged cell, they bind to it, eventually killing it. Cerwenka also identified specific signalling pathways in tumours that led to the increased production of RAE-1 proteins on the surface of damaged cells. In addition, the researchers discovered certain second messenger substances that make it easier for NK cells to enter and attack the tumour. The researchers are now hoping to make cancer cells more sensitive to immunological defence reactions. “We hope to be able to help cancer patients by directing their immune defence specifically to the tumour,” said Cerwenka.
Adelheid Cerwenka studied pharmacy at the University of Vienna where she did her doctorate in immunology. Following several research stays in the USA, Cerwenka worked for two years at the Novartis Research Institute in Vienna before moving on to the German Cancer Research Centre in April 2004. She has already received numerous awards and scholarships.