The Ernst Young Prize for Medicine awarded by the Jung Foundation for Science and Research goes to not one but two high-calibre researchers this year. Both scientists are making important contributions to the current state of knowledge in their respective specialist field with their research. They are sharing the EUR 300,000 endowment between them.



Considering the microbiome in medical practice

The microbiome researcher Professor Dr. Ruth Ley from Tübingen receives the award for her pioneering work in the field of intestinal microbiomes, as well as the interaction between nutrition, the host and gut microbiota.

Hundreds of billions of microbes colonize our bodies - a very personal and individual microbiota, formed and developed from birth throughout our lives. For a long time the human microbiome and its importance to health have been virtually unexplored. However, the progress of molecular biological methods and sequencing techniques in recent years have allowed deep insights into the world of microorganisms. This exciting field of research is expanding at a breathtaking pace, and the results are gradually leading to a rethinking of medical practice. Professor Ruth Ley, Director of the Department of Microbiome Science at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, is one of the pioneers in microbiome research and has contributed important insights to the current state of knowledge. Together with other researchers, she showed for the first time that microorganisms in the gut play an important role in our health and metabolism, and that the microbiome, together with other factors, can contribute to obesity, diabetes and chronic autoimmune diseases.

“The human microbiome should definitely be taken into account in the medical treatment of diseases,” says Ruth Ley. “Every microbiome is unique and different from person to person. Therefore, I think that good medical practice should be personalized and individual to the patient,” she explains. “The aim should be to include environmental influences that the patient has been exposed to during their lifetime, such as nutrition and other factors that shape the microbiota.” The researcher comes from Farnham in England. She was already keen on science as a child and her interest in ecology eventually led her to microbiome research. She likes hiking or cycling in her free time and spends time modelling clay sculptures. She is married and has an 11-year-old son.



Tracking down the causes of multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s

The neuroscientist and neuropathologist Professor Dr. med. Marco Prinz from Freiburg is honoured for his groundbreaking research work in the field of the mechanisms that regulate the development and function of microglia.

Ten percent of the brain consists of nerve cells. Another ten to 15 percent are so-called microglia cells, the immune system’s specific brain macrophages. These immune cells are essential as they permanently provide order in the brain, nourish it and protect it against infections. They ensure that the brain is in a condition in which it can work optimally. Professor Dr. med. Marco Prinz, Medical Director at the Institute of Neuropathology at the University Medical Center Freiburg, together with colleagues from Freiburg and Israel, has proved for the first time how microglia cells influence the degeneration of nerve cells with multiple sclerosis. “The genetic information in the microglia cells obviously play an important part in this,” explains Marco Prinz. This connection is considered to be reasonably certain with Alzheimer’s too. One of the future research objectives for the working group led by Marco Prinz is to find out exactly how genetic changes in microglia cells lead to these diseases. The scientists are also researching how far the colonising of the intestine correlates with the microglia cells’ function and to what extent this can influence brain diseases. “Obviously the maturing of microglia cells depends on the gut bacteria,” says Prinz. “And that’s not all. There appears to be a kind of constant communication between the intestine and microglia cells.” There are still plenty of unanswered questions here that Prinz wants to get to the bottom of with his team.

The neuroscientist born in Cottbus was already taken with research from a young age. “I soon became fascinated with the brain during the anatomy seminars as part of my studies in medicine at the Charité in Berlin,” reports Prinz. As a balance to his work, he likes hiking in the Black Forest and spending time outdoors with his children aged seven, 18 and 24 and the family dog. Besides the occasional sporting activities, he likes reading historical biographies and playing cards.