Axel Ullrich

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 and Schimon Peres

Axel Ullrich, Director of the Department Molecular Biology, was awarded the Wolf Foundation Prize in Medicine 2010.

Press Releases

Axel Ullrich, together with H. Michael Shepard and Dennis J. Slamon, receives the highest biomedical scientific award in the United States for the invention of Herceptin. more

Cancer remains one of the leading causes of death worldwide and the World Health Organisation projects over 13 million annual deaths from cancer by the year 2030. A new generation of medicines based on genetic engineering stops cancer at the root, by disrupting the blood supply or the growth of tumours. Key insights behind this new approach are owed to German molecular biologist Axel Ullrich (73). In a research career spanning over four decades, the pioneer identified the cellular processes behind the genesis of cancer and other diseases. In commercial drug development roles and as a leading Max Planck Institute researcher, Ullrich spearheaded ground-breaking laboratory techniques and next-generation anti-cancer medicines. For these achievements, Axel Ullrich has been nominated for the European Inventor Award 2017 as one of three finalists in the category "Lifetime Achievement". The winners of the 12th edition of the European Patent Office (EPO)’s annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Venice on 15 June. more

Axel Ullrich, Professor Emeritus of the Department of Molecular Biology at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried has been awarded the Johann-Georg-Zimmermann Medal for his services in the field of cancer research. For more than 40 years the award, sponsored by Deutsche Hypothekenbank AG, has recognized outstanding scientists in the field of cancer research. The MHHplus Foundation will present the award at Hannover Medical School on 6 February 2017. more

Mom’s eyes and dad’s tumor? Cancer is due to genetic defects, some of which can be hereditary. The gene variant rs351855, for example, occurs in one in two cancer patients. It supports the growth of a variety of tumors that are aggressive and difficult to treat. A team headed by Axel Ullrich from the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried identified the gene variant a decade ago. The same laboratory has now succeeded for the first time in showing that the defect exposes an otherwise hidden binding site on the FGFR4 receptor. In a previously unknown interaction, growth factor STAT3, which promotes cancer, binds to the exposed site. The STAT3 signaling cascade can be efficiently blocked. For the first time, this could provide a promising therapeutic approach for many cancer patients. At the same time, it represents an important step towards personalized medicine. The paper was published in Nature. more

Most cancer patients die of the disease because tumor cells spread to other sites in the body and form new tumors, so-called metastases. Scientists of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) of Biochemistry in Martinsried and their cooperation partners of the Lead Discovery Center GmbH (LDC) have now signed a licensing agreement with the Korean company Qurient for a group of active substances that have been a focus of their research for a long time. These substances shall target metastasizing and drug-resistant tumors more specifically and selectively. Qurient will successively enter the tested substances into preclinical and clinical trials in order to use them in the future for drugs in patients. The Max Planck researchers hope that if the experiments and clinical trials are successful, a drug based on the new active substances could be on the market by the end of the decade.

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