Axel Ullrich was director of the institute from 1988 to October 2016. Since November 2016 he is Emeritus Scientific Member of the MPI for Biochemistry.
The research of the Department of Molecular Biology is focussed on the molecular analysis of cellular signal transduction mechanisms and their significance for normal biological processes and pathophysiological phenomena such as cancer.
Disturbances in the communication between cells have gatal consequences: All cancer types and many other human diseases develop because the cellular signal transduction process is disturbed. Axel Ullrich and his team in the Research Department “Molecular Biology” are investigating the communication system by which information is transmitted from the cell surface into the cell ́s interior. The researchers want to understand how gene defects result in diseases in order to develop targeted drugs.
For cells to proliferate and form differentiated tissue – for example blood vessels, nerve tissue or connective tissue – they must be stimulated by so-called growth factors. These proteins bind to specific receptors on the cell surface and thus initiate a complex messaging cascade. Important components of this communication system are specific enzymes, the receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs). They act as switches which can be activated by growth factors and thereby activate signaling pathways to the cell nucleus and other cell compartments.
Biologists are focusing on these RTKs because growth factors and their receptors also play an important role in the development of cancer. The goal of the researchers is to gain insight into the cellular signal transduction network of cancer cells and thus to advance the development of new target-specific strategies against different cancer types. Ullrich’s findings formed the basis for Herceptin, the first tailor-made active pharmaceutical agent with anticancer effect, which intervenes in the cellular signaling chain of breast cancer cells. Herceptin is an antibody which targets and inhibits a receptor that is excessively produced and activated in 30 percent of all breast cancers – normal cells, by contrast, are spared.
The multitargeted RTK inhibitors are a further development. They intervene at different sites in the cellular signaling system and attack the cancer cell from several directions at the same time. One such novel active pharmaceutical ingredient is also based on Ullrich’s research: The drug Sutent/Sunitinib inhibits both cancer cells and the new formation of blood vessels, which are essential for the growth of tumors.
For Ullrich it is important that research results find their way into practice. For that reason he wants to find new points of attack for therapies in the future and – also with the aid of cooperation partners from industry – to take charge of the development of new drugs. His goal is to find multispecific active pharmaceutical ingredients which can attack simultaneously at many different sites of the signaling network of the cell and thus can be used to treat different kinds of cancer.
Axel Ullrich was honored with the Wolf Foundation Prize 2010
Axel Ullrich, Director of the Department Molecular Biology, was awarded the Wolf Foundation Prize in Medicine 2010.