Research career between Munich and Africa

Michael Hölscher, LMU München


Michael Hölscher has had an interest in Africa from the start, and it has never left him: his career path started in Tanzania over 20 years ago. The research fields HIV and tuberculosis have been on his agenda ever since, and he co-coordinates them both at the DZIF. With his focus on both research and therapy, he embodies a “clinical scientist” like no other. Last year, Hölscher took on a DZIF Professorship for Global Health & Infectious Diseases at the Medical Center of the University of Munich, and soon after also headed the Department of Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine there.

So it is no wonder that this man is difficult to get a hold of. Besides his activities at the DZIF and the Department of Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine, he flies to Mbeya, Tanzania, several times a year, where he has set up a research base. However, in his office—where he is guarded by two wooden African masks—there are no signs of any hectic rush and no hidden glances at the clock. He seems completely relaxed, casually dressed in a dark blue shirt and jeans, and takes time to talk about his work and his life.

“Had things gone according to my mother, I would now be producing animal films in Africa,” Michael Hölscher says with a grin. Even though things took a slightly different turn, he already knew as a child that he wanted to go to Africa. During his medical studies, he used the first opportunity he had to do a clerkship in Botswana. “I immediately felt at home in Africa.” And things stayed that way. In 1992, Michael Hölscher started his PhD in Tanzania—“After going to my supervisor five times to convince him about doing research work in Africa.” In the 1980ies, HIV had just become known as the cause of AIDS, and so Hölscher quickly found his PhD topic: “Is investing money into disposable syringes useful for reducing the rate of infection in Africa?” His work, for which he travelled from hospital to hospital in a Jeep and meticulously analysed the contents of injections, was published in the journal AIDS and is highly regarded.

At the age of 27, Michael Hölscher had his first large research project in Africa. “It was more coincidental” that he attended a meeting about HIV subtypes. “I had actually registered for an ultrasound course, but the meeting next door simply seemed more interesting.” He got back much more than the 400 euros he had lost to the ultrasound course: soon after, he received 300,000 euros for research on HIV subtypes in Tanzania and Uganda. This was his start to chasing third-party funding, which he still does with enthusiasm today: “Raising third-party funds for important projects gives me a thrill,” he admits. One of his strengths is turning ideas into projects and getting other people interested in them, which, in the last ten years, has helped him raise many millions of euros of third party research funding.

Since 1996, Michael Hölscher has been establishing his own working group at the LMU and, alongside this, a research institute in Tanzania. The Mbeya Medical Research Programme (MMRP) in Tanzania, which he has directed since 1999, became his “baby”. Here, Africans, Germans and numerous international staff jointly research and test novel drugs, vaccines and diagnostics to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. Since 2008, the MMRP has become a state owned research institute—training programmes for young science talents from Tanzania and other African countries have made it possible. As an African partner establishment, it is also available to the DZIF for research work.

Is he leaving Africa? “Here in Europe, I will always have a voice for Africa,” Hölscher explains. “I understand African needs very well and feel very close to the people.” However, he has never focused on actually living in Africa, having experienced that integrating into life there can be difficult. “Mzungu”, the African word for a white person, means “those who restlessly wander about” and highlights the difference in mentality and how it is perceived. Michael Hölscher was born in Munich and is firmly anchored in this city. He has been living in Munich with his wife and three children for years and cannot imagine living better elsewhere. Of course, he regularly travels to Africa, where his expertise is in demand. And, of course, his children also have a soft spot for this country. “Last year, I travelled through Tanzania for six weeks with the three of them,” he says. “At the age of 14, 11 and 8, they were old enough to get to know the country in which I spend so much time. They now understand me much better.”

Michael Hölscher has many new tasks ahead that go beyond Africa. Since 2009, he has been coordinating different international multi-centre trials on HIV and AIDS. As part of the so-called PanACEA Consortium, he is one of the players in the largest European association for tuberculosis drug development. The DZIF is also involved in this programme with the development of a new active substance against tuberculosis called BTZ-043. Even here, Hölscher keeps initiating new projects and is convinced that much more can be developed out of the DZIF. “I am an enthusiastic advocate for the DZIF,” he admits. And adds: “Out of every DZIF euro, we raise seven euros though third party funding.”

There he goes again, the player and doer, and presents another plan for the future: “We could found a product development partnership with the DZIF, which would fulfil the financial and legal requirements for bringing DZIF products into phase III.” Currently, financial means are usually available for research up to the first clinical phase, after which the DZIF is dependent on pharmaceutical companies for further clinical development. Hölscher has plenty of project ideas and, paired with his talent to get others enthusiastic about them, he is bound to get many more projects going. “I am a typical hunter; however, as soon as I have a project and the necessary financial means, I am able to delegate it quite easily.” And doing this is also essential, given the number of projects that Hölscher is involved in.

In the next years, a focus of his work will be directing the Department of Infectious Diseases and of Tropical Medicine. He is certain, “A lot more can developed here.” He is involved in a PhD programme at the LMU Munich, and is a member of the DZIF internal advisory board. Michael Hölscher is happy to return some of what he has received.

After two and a half hours of intensive talking, he finally does glance at the clock. The DZIF Annual Meeting is due to start in a few minutes and he does not want to miss it. There is much to discuss and a completely new idea related to refugee health is beginning to take shape. Michael Hölscher will put it into practice with passion and his power of persuasion.