Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine 2014: Laureate Dr. Thomas Boehm

Research on gene level, because it enables us to look at the whole person – this unusual formula shows what is at the heart of the successful work carried out by this year's recipient of the Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine. "Coming into direct contact with patients suffering from severe and often incurable diseases made me want to focus on basic research into pressing but unsolved medical problems", explains Professor Thomas Boehm.

He began his medical career by studying human medicine at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, along with study visits to the Columbia University in New York and the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. Professor Boehm graduated in Frankfurt in 1982, where he also qualified as a university lecturer in 1988. A four-year stint at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge was followed by a C3-professorship for Medical Molecular Biology at the Albert-Ludwigs University Freiburg and a C4-professorship for experimental therapy at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg. Since January 1998, Professor Boehm has been director of the Immune System Development field of work at the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg and honorary professor at the medical faculty of the local university.

The family man balances out his research on a global level with artistic and practical activities: he loves music and manual work and has a particular passion for carpentry. And his activities in these fields are also certain to define what he describes as the most important challenge when issuing medical treatment: "combining human warmth with professional expertise".

Being healthy means: being able to defend yourself

Think of a medieval city. If a citizen of the city arrives, the gates stay open. If a stranger comes along, the guard lowers the barrier and checks who wishes to pass through the gates. If enemies are approaching, the drawbridge is raised and arrows rain from the city wall: any effective form of defense relies on the ability to tell foreign elements apart from your own and to fight enemies. Although on a much more complex scale - the concept is the same in the body's own immune system.

In order to develop the defense skills essential for survival, our body operates a centre, where soldiers and "guards", killer and helper cells, are trained as experts in their tasks: the thymus. The work carried out in the centre adapts constantly to suit the requirements - the characteristics of the enemy, which are constantly changing to deceive the defense. Imagine how dangerous it would be if this centre stopped functioning correctly or ceased to function completely! Then we would have inadequately trained defenses, which are unable to identify friend and foe and distinguish between the two reliably. Attacks are directed at the body's own structures by mistake, resulting in autoimmune diseases. Or adversaries go undetected and unscathed, resulting in immunodeficiency diseases.

To stop these processes and to open up possible cures for the resulting illnesses, Professor Boehm has devoted his time for many years to intensive research into the thymus and has already made groundbreaking progress. Through comparison studies on a wide range of different animal species, for example, key properties of the immune system common in all vertebrates were identified, which make the structure and design of an adaptable immune system easier to understand. Further research provided an insight into the previously unknown control mechanisms, which cause the maturing process and differentiation of the immune cells This was followed by successful experiments with the production of artificial thymus glands. In the long-term, Professor Boehm and his colleagues hope to be able to help patients restore their immune system so that it can defend them effectively again. The first groundbreaking steps have already been taken.