Deciphering molecular mechanisms and using them for treatment Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine 2019 goes to Professor Brenda A. Schulman and Professor Gary R. Lewin

Hamburg, 23 May 2019. This year, the Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine of the Jung Foundation for Science and Research goes to two outstanding researchers. Martinsried-based biochemist Professor Brenda A. Schulman is receiving the award in recognition of her continued pioneering work on the mechanisms of ubiquitin transfer at the atomic level. Berlin neurobiologist Professor Gary R. Lewin is being honoured for his ground-breaking research on the molecular and physiological basis of tactile sense and pain perception. With their research, both scientists make important contributions to the current state of knowledge in their respective fields. They will share the prize money of 300,000 euros equally.


On the trail of a “ubiquitous” molecule

The molecule ubiquitin serves as an intracellular stop signal and controls what happens in a living cell – just as stop signs regulate traffic on the road. The term “ubiquitin” results from the fact that the molecules occur “ubiquitously” in all eukaryotic cells and control a multitude of different biochemical reactions, from cell division to the defence against bacterial infections. At any given time, each human cell contains thousands of ubiquitin molecules that must be properly placed in different, but specific locations. If their regulation is disturbed, this can lead to diseases such as cancer, neurodegenerative diseases or high blood pressure. Ubiquitin is an extremely small molecule and can only be seen with extreme magnification, such as under an electron microscope. Professor Brenda A. Schulman, Director of the Department of Molecular Machines and Signalling at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried, and her colleagues have developed numerous methods with which the ubiquitin system can be further investigated. They use approaches from chemistry, cell biology, mass spectrometry, biochemistry and structural biology. “I have the feeling that I have been on a treasure hunt for more than 20 years and that I can now finally see the treasure chest from a distance for the first time,” enthuses Brenda A. Schulman. “Thanks to the new methods, we are only now beginning to see the very first wonderful treasures. And since ubiquitin is so omnipresent, there is a whole treasure trove to discover. This is enormously exciting!” The 51-year-old researcher comes from Tucson, Arizona. She discovered her passion for chemistry and biology and for how molecules perform amazing processes back in the third year of high school. In addition to her research, she regularly runs and enjoys free time with her husband.


Understanding the transmission of stimuli through touch

Our skin allows us to perceive touch, pressure, warmth, cold or pain. This happens via sensory cells and free nerve endings, which are located in the skin surface and are responsible for the sense of touch as well as the sense of temperature and pain. Professor Gary R. Lewin, head of the research group and coordinator of the Department of Diseases of the Nervous System at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, and his team are investigating how mechanical and thermal stimuli are absorbed by sensory cells and transduced into electrical signals. To this end, the research group is investigating naked mole rats, which serve as model organisms due to their special physiological properties. Naked mole rats have no coat and are very sensitive to touch. Due to their blindness, these rodents have a particularly strong sense of touch, which they use for social interaction. Lewin was able to show that this species lacks certain types of pain perception. Further investigation of the causes and underlying mechanisms could help to develop new treatments and remedies for pain.  “My enthusiasm for research arose during my doctoral thesis when I had the experience of measuring processes that no one had ever measured before,” says Lewin. “When you realise you’ve discovered something important, it’s never just a single result, but many small fragments – experiments, information – that suddenly come together like a puzzle to form a coherent picture. This feeling is indescribable.”  Gary R. Lewin is Manx – born on the Isle of Man – and grew up in Douglas. The 54-year-old is married, has three children and loves going travelling with his family. He is also currently completing his glider pilot’s license.