His aim is to develop a vaccine against the widespread gastric pathogen Helicobacter pylori: for his work in this field, Professor Markus Gerhard, Technische Universität München (TUM), was awarded the DZIF Prize for Translational Infection Research. The prize, worth 5000 euros, was awarded at the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) Annual Meeting in Munich.
Helicobacter pylori is a dreaded gastrointestinal tract pathogen which has infected over half the world’s population. These bacteria are the most common cause of gastric ulcers and gastric cancer. Worldwide, around 750,000 people are diagnosed with gastric cancer every year. Markus Gerhard, Professor of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at the TUM, and researcher at the DZIF, have been investigating this gastric pathogen since the start of his career in the mid-90ies. His work on the interactions between H. pylori and the human immune system has led to a completely new vaccine approach. Professor Gerhard was awarded the DZIF Prize for outstanding translational infection research, which is to go into its first clinical phase I trial soon.
The DZIF’s highest mission is translation: drugs and therapies should be brought from basic research to the patient as quickly and systematically as possible. At the most recent Annual Meeting, which was jointly held with the German Society of Infectious Diseases from 18 to 21 November, over 300 scientists came together to discuss current research projects. The development of a Helicobacter pylori vaccine is a particularly good example of a successful translational project resulting from closer collaboration between basic researchers and clinicians.
A prizeworthy development
Antibiotics that are effective against Helicobacter pylori exist, and hence also protect against the secondary complications. However, emerging antibiotic resistance is increasingly challenging successful treatment. For this reason, Gerhard and DZIF scientists in Hannover are jointly developing a treatment vaccine: “We would like to vaccinate Helicobacter pylori infected adults who do not yet have gastric ulcers or gastric cancer, who will then be protected from developing these diseases by the vaccine,” the prize-winner explains.
In his research on interactions between H. pylori and the immune system, Gerhard was able to elucidate why the bacteria cause chronic infections despite active immune defence systems. He characterised a pathogenic factor that plays an ominous role: the enzyme gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase, short gGT, inhibits human cellular immune responses. Based on this, Markus Gerhard developed his new approach to developing a vaccine: gGT is used as an antigen to induce antibodies that inhibit the pathogenic factor. In combination with a H. pylori surface protein this ultimately triggers a strong T cell immune response against the pathogen. The effectivity of this vaccination strategy has already been demonstrated in mice. Gerhard is working on further developing this strategy, also with DZIF support. The vaccine will be tested on humans for the first time in a clinical phase I trial in 2016.
Markus Gerhard studied medicine in Heidelberg and Hamburg. After his PhD in 1996, he started his medical work at the Technische Universität München. He has been working on the widespread gastric pathogen Helicobacter pylori since the start of his career in gastroenterology in 1997. Markus Gerhard has been Professor of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at the TUM since 2011. At the DZIF, he is part of the coordinating team for the research field “Gastroenterological infections”, and he makes a special contribution towards the DZIF’s declared mission of translation in his role as a “clinician scientist”.