The Dutch biologist and physician has developed a new standard procedure for the unlimited reproduction of adult stem cells, enabling the growth of rudimentary organs in miniature format, known as organoids. Drugs can now be tested in lifelike conditions in a Petri dish, and damaged organs can be repaired and possibly replaced. Hans Clevers is to receive the Körber Prize endowed with 750,000 euros for these ground-breaking findings and their further development up to clinical application.
Clevers conducts research on adult stem cells in digestive organs, in particular in the small intestine. Adult stem cells are present in the body after birth and can repair defects throughout a person's life. They regularly renew the inner tissue lining of the small intestine. The prize winner is particularly interested in the signals that cause the stem cells to divide. Using a receptor (Lgr5) discovered by him which is present only in stem cells, he was able to isolate these cells from retrieved intestinal tissue.
In 2009, Clevers successfully generated an intestine organoid from a single intestinal stem cell which survived for several months in the Petri dish. This is regarded as a breakthrough in stem cell research. Drugs are already being tested on, for example, mini-organs generated from tumour tissue. "Instead of subjecting a bowel cancer patient to non-specific chemotherapy, we can give him a drug that has proven particularly effective on his laboratory-tested tumour organoids," says Clevers.
In 2013 he successfully removed the genetic defect from intestinal stem cells of patients suffering from the hereditary disease cystic fibrosis.
Hans Clevers is 59 years old and has been Head of the Research Department of the Princess Máxima Centre in Utrecht, a newly established paediatric cancer hospital, since 2015. He received the Körber Prize in Hamburg City Hall on 7 September, 2016.
Replacement Organs from a Petri Dish
Hamburg's mayor began the ceremony for the presentation of the Körber European Science Prize in Hamburg City Hall with impressive figures. A one with 14 zeros, that is the number of cells in an adult human. Placed one behind the other, a chain of these cells would span the globe about 60 times. 50,000 cells die per second, but just as many are created at the same time. Human cells and this year's winner who comprises the same, Prof. Dr. Hans Clevers, remained the focus of the event. Clevers has developed a new standard method for the unlimited reproduction of adult stem cells, with which he can grow rudimentary organs in miniature format, so-called organoids. And it is for this achievement that he has been awarded this year's Körber Prize.
The road to the point where diseased livers or stomachs can be cured or even replaced by organoids may still be long, Scholz continued. But it is no longer science fiction. These organoids are already of practical benefit in research today. For example, they are used in the testing of new drugs and in the development of individually tailored chemotherapy. "You have not only impressed us in Hamburg with your research, you have inspired us," said Scholz. Firmly integrated into the European community, Hamburg has developed into a major centre for innovation and science. This is also thanks to the commitment of the Körber Foundation, he concluded.
Dr. Lothar Dittmer, Chairman of the Executive Board of the Körber Foundation, relativised this enthusiasm for science somewhat. It is well known that trained physicists, chemists and engineers are in short supply. "What is the explanation for the discrepancy between people's respect for scientific and technical knowledge and the rather uninspiring job image of the representatives of this profession? Why are scientists not considered 'cool'? Perhaps this is due to the blatantly erroneous assumptions that scientists work alone, that other professions could help humanity more effectively and more quickly or that science is too abstract.
Our impatient society wants solutions immediately, Dittmer went on. Yet the more we regulate science and trim it to rapidly exploitable results, the fewer breakthroughs and innovations there will be. As a founder, Kurt Körber also recognized this: "Although I am actually an impatient person, I have taught myself to exercise patience when it comes to scientific research." Instead of control, confidence in the winners – who know better what the next best step should be – is the basis on which the prize is awarded. This has produced outstanding results and in the meantime several Nobel Prizes. Nevertheless, we must concern ourselves more with what will determine the future of our society, said Dittmer. His proposal: In view of the extensive ignorance of science and technology on the part of the media, what Germany really needs is a scientific and technical literacy campaign.
In the subsequent discussion, the scientific journalist Ranga Yogeshwar wanted to know from Clevers whether such research could perhaps ultimately make eternal life possible. Even without being able to say now exactly where the development of organoids using stem cells might lead, the prize winner played the idea down. Living for ninety healthy years and then making way for the next generation is more like what he envisages. Could experiences from scientific work also be transferred to everyday life, asked Yogeshwar. A laboratory is a society in miniature, Clevers replied. It is important to trust each other, then you also get trust back in return and work is more fun.
Trust is very important in science, underlined Professor Dr. Martin Stratmann, President of the Max Planck Society and Chairman of the Financial Board of the Körber Prize. However, this trust must also be earned. Science is now more expensive than it was 200 years ago and society would like to know where funds are going. Information technology will also change this society greatly in the future, he added. Children must be familiarised with such tools at an early age. Teaching computer science in school ultimately also means preserving the prosperity that we have today.
Photos of the presentation of the Koerber European Science Prize 2016 to Nicola Spaldin on September 7, Hamburg Town Hall.
These photos are free to use in the context of news coverage with the credit Körber Foundation/David Ausserhofer.
Dr. Lothar Dittmer, Chairman of the Executive Board of the Körber Foundation, and Prof. Dr. Martin Stratmann, President of Max Planck Society, present the Körber European Science Prize 2016 to Hans Clevers
Photo: Körber-Stiftung/David Ausserhofer
Photos: Körber Foundation/Friedrun Reinhold (click on the images for printable versions)
These photos are free to use in the context of news coverage with the credit Körber Foundation/Friedrun Reinhold.