“The German research scene is unique”

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Involving shortness of breath, fatigue, circulatory problems, fainting and heart failure, pulmonary hypertension is a condition with serious consequences. Together with colleagues from the research and pharmaceutical sectors, pulmonary specialist Professor Ardeschir Ghofrani from Justus Liebig University Giessen has developed a ground-breaking drug that helps with two forms of the disease. For this innovation the team was awarded the 2015 Deutscher Zukunftspreis, an internationally renowned prize presented by Germany’s federal president. In our interview, Professor Ghofrani explains how the drug works, why cooperation between research and industry can be beneficial, what he appreciates about Germany as a location for research and what advice he would give young researchers.

Professor Ardeschir Ghofrani

Professor Ghofrani, you and your team were awarded the renowned 2015 Deutscher Zukunftspreis for your ground-breaking research into the treatment of pulmonary hypertension and for developing a key drug. What exactly is meant by pulmonary hypertension and why is your drug so important?

A patient with pulmonary hypertension (PH) suffers from increased blood pressure in the lungs. This results in cramping or chronic restriction of the pulmonary vasculature. One of the symptoms which PH patients exhibit is severe shortness of breath. The increased pressure puts considerable strain on the right heart because it has to work much harder as a result. If pulmonary hypertension is not treated, patients often die of heart failure after just a few years.
Our drug is effective in two forms of the disease. We have developed a mechanism which targets the cardiovascular system directly at the molecular level. One important molecule that widens the body’s blood vessels and lowers blood pressure is nitric monoxide (NO). Patients with pulmonary hypertension produce too little NO, with the result that the pressure in the pulmonary arteries increases. NO interacts with an enzyme which transmits its vasodilatory effect to the cells: soluble guanylyl cyclase (sGC). As early as 1994, our partners at Bayer discovered a way of activating sGC independently of NO. Together, we were able to demonstrate that this would be a promising method of treating pulmonary hypertension. A few years later we then succeeded in creating an agent which could lower the blood pressure in the lungs. The mechanism we developed could also be used to treat many other conditions in future.

What exactly is the benefit of such cooperation between research and industry?

One major benefit for us was that Bayer already had valuable experience in the development of pulmonary hypertension treatments. Not many companies around the world are conducting drug research in this field. For our part, we have a long tradition of researching pulmonary disease – especially pulmonary vascular disease – at the German Center for Lung Research. Our cooperation already began at a very early stage. All the partners contributed not only great expertise and experience, but also enormous enthusiasm. All of this meant that the time from idea to patient application could be shortened considerably.

You studied in Aachen and Giessen. Today you are the senior physician in charge of the Giessen University Hospital pulmonary outpatient department and the medical director of the Kerckhoff-Klinik Bad Nauheim. In addition, you hold a part-time chair at Imperial College London. Nonetheless, you see your academic home as being in Germany, at Justus Liebig University Giessen. Why?

The German research scene is unique. University education is open to everyone. This allows talented people from all kinds of different areas to enjoy an academic education and helps them get involved in research. At the same time, the German research scene benefits from a very large number of funding instruments based on many different pillars. For example, there are the public-sector programmes run by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the German Research Foundation (DFG), as well as many ways of receiving support from non-university research institutions. Recent years have seen increased cooperation with industry, which I also see as a way of promoting research. These diverse instruments for supporting research make it possible for scientists in Germany to dedicate themselves to long-term projects. However, researchers can also request support from various funding organizations if an injection of capital is needed at short notice. The attractive range of funding available is also helping to convince more and more talented and highly-qualified researchers from abroad of the benefits of Germany as a location for research.

What would you recommend to young researchers in your field: what should they take into account when considering a research career in Germany?

In my opinion, young researchers should invest time in selecting the right research project. Apart from the content of the project and the quality of supervision and support, the research group itself is a key factor. How productive is it? How well-established? How innovative? These are important criteria which can be helpful when choosing a project. Personally, I encourage students and young researchers to go into basic research, or at least to give it a try for a while. Pure research teaches you how to think in a structured manner, how to acquire and process information efficiently, and to broaden your horizons. In the field of medicine, I believe that gaining insights into research makes students into better doctors.

Professor Ghofrani, thank you very much for the interview.


Excellence Cluster Cardio-Pulmonary System (ECCPS)

The Excellence Cluster Cardio-Pulmonary System (ECCPS) of the universities of Giessen and Frankfurt and the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Heart and Lung Research in Bad Nauheim constitutes a unique translational research centre that is dedicated to combining cutting-edge basic sciences with preclinical and clinical studies in the field of vascular and parenchymal heart and lung diseases. Research is organized on different levels of complexity, such as molecular signatures and target structures, cellular phenotypes, integrative – including developmental – biology, disease models and preclinical studies as well as clinical trials.