Prestigious funding for outstanding female scientists in inflammation research

The Cluster of Excellence PMI awards three of its most exceptional young female researchers in Kiel and Lübeck a total of €200,000 in funding via its Dorothea Erxleben Female Investigator Award.

The Cluster of Excellence “Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation” (PMI) yesterday (30 August 2021) awarded three Dorothea Erxleben awards to outstanding young female scientists conducting research on inflammation. This year’s award winners will receive funding of €100,000 for one award and €50,000 each for two further awards. President of Kiel University (CAU) Professor Simone Fulda and her colleague Professor Gabriele Gillessen-Kaesbach from the University of Lübeck (UzL) gave the awards to winners Professor Petra Bacher (CAU), Dr. Corinna Bang (CAU) and Dr. Julia Pagel (UzL).

 “Funding for women in science is an issue that is particularly close to my heart. Targeted instruments are especially important when it comes to providing the best possible support for excellent female researchers along their individual career paths and in the development of their scientific potential. The Cluster PMI offers an outstanding structural framework for this through its prestigious Dorothea Erxleben Female Investigator Award,” stressed Prof. Simone Fulda, President of Kiel University, at the award ceremony. “I am therefore absolutely delighted to be here to congratulate the winners of this award and I wish them every success with their work on their ambitious projects,” continued Fulda.

“I am extremely impressed with the achievements of this year's Dorothea Erxleben award winners. They are all shining examples of successful female researchers. Even though we have already made great progress with respect to equal opportunities in research over the last few years, awards like this are immensely important in recognizing the achievements of our excellent female researchers and making their work visible,” said Prof. Gabriele Gillessen-Kaesbach, President of the University of Lübeck.

The awards are part of the cluster’s Dorothea-Erxleben-Program for Gender Equality, the funding program for promoting more equal opportunities between men and women in hospitals and clinics and in research. The Dorothea Erxleben awards are exclusively for female scientists from the cluster with the aim of supporting their excellent research activities in the area of inflammatory research and therefore also enhancing their competitiveness for funding applications. This is the second time the awards will be given; the first time was in 2017 when they were awarded by the preceding cluster “Inflammation at Interfaces”. The award is named after Dorothea Christiane Erxleben, the first female doctor in Germany to complete her doctoral degree in the middle of the 18th century and who practiced as a physician.

Prof. Petra Bacher (born 1984) is to receive the Dorothea Erxleben award with accompanying prize money of €100,000. Since 2018, Bacher has worked as a Junior Professor of Immunology and Immunogenetics at the Institute of Immunology and the Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology (IKMB) at Kiel University and the University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH), Campus Kiel. Bacher is also a junior research group leader of the Schleswig-Holstein Excellence Chair program. She researches the role of the immune system in chronic inflammatory diseases with a particular focus on certain immune cells, the CD4+ T cells, which specifically recognize pathogens and foreign bodies. Although these T cells are important for a healthy immune response, certain T cell reactions can also cause diseases and chronic inflammation.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Bacher has also been researching the role of SARS-CoV-2 reactive T cells in cases of COVID-19. In a paper published in Immunity she was able to show that individuals who had not yet had any contact with SARS-CoV-2 already had memory T cells that recognize SARS-CoV-2. But these pre-existing memory T cells are clearly not particularly able to fight the virus as they only bind very weakly to it. In fact, if the immune system relies on these cells that only bind very weakly to fight the pathogen rather than on an immune response based on naive T cells, the memory cells could even help cause serious disease progressions. In her project funded by the prize, Bacher plans to study how these pre-existing memory cells influence the quality of the T cell reaction following vaccination and the extent to which this affects the success of the vaccination.

“In the funded project we are studying blood samples before and after vaccination and are able to analyze whether pre-existing memory cells or naive T cells are used for the immune response and what effect this has on the quality of the vaccination response. This is of direct clinical relevance, on the one hand, to understand how well the vaccination protects individual people and age groups, but also, on the other hand, to understand the excessive T cell inflammation that is seen in serious cases of COVID-19,” continued Bacher.

Dr. Corinna Bang (born 1984), postdoc at the Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology (IKMB) at the CAU and UKSH, Campus Kiel, and Director of the Microbiome Laboratory at the IKMB, is to receive one of the two Dorothea Erxleben awards with accompanying prize money of €50,000. Bang researches the microbiome, i.e. all the micro-organisms that inhabit a body. Her research focuses on chronic inflammation. She is looking for common mechanisms and influences of the microbiome that cause inflammation irrespective of what organ it ultimately affects. In previous projects, she was able to find specific changes in the bowel and mouth microbiome of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) that also occur in people with chronic inflammatory bowel diseases.

In the project now facilitated by the Dorothea Erxleben award, she plans to consider her research questions in greater depth. “The problem previously was that the MS patients and patients whose samples we studied were already taking medication that has a definite influence on the microbiome. In the project now planned, we want to study patients with MS and patients with chronic inflammatory bowel diseases who have only just been diagnosed and have not yet been prescribed medication,” explained Bang. She plans to determine the complete – and not just partial, as was most often the case previously – genome sequencing of existing micro-organisms in these patients and healthy test subjects and by doing so, not only draw conclusions about which micro-organisms form part of the microbiome, but also and especially about how they interact and what their function is.

Dr. Julia Pagel (born 1982) is to receive one of the two Dorothea Erxleben awards with accompanying prize money of €50,000. Pagel is both a practicing pediatrician at the Department of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at the UKSH, Campus Lübeck, as well as a researcher at the Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology at the University of Lübeck and UKSH, Campus Lübeck. Her research over the last few years has focused on sepsis, i.e. blood poisoning, among premature babies – one of the main causes of death among premature babies. Her research has meanwhile also focused on chronic lung disease among premature babies, bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD). The damage caused to the lungs by this disease can affect the patient into adulthood. Nearly all children diagnosed with BPD previously had sepsis. Why is as yet unexplained. “One hypothesis is that when sepsis results in an excessive immune reaction, this reaction continues and attacks the lungs, which could cause BPD,” explained Pagel. “We assume that this is not, however, the only cause of the disease. We plan to study this in greater detail,” continued Pagel.

Pagel has already been able to demonstrate that sepsis specifically changes the premature babies’ bowel microbiome, i.e. all of the micro-organisms in the bowel, and disturbs the development of their immune system. With this funding, she now plans to conduct similar studies using samples from premature babies with BPD. She plans to analyze how the bowel microbiome and immune cell development of these children is different to that of premature babies without lung disease and how this disruption can cause ongoing inflammation and then chronic lung disease.

Three young women with bouquets and certificates
© C. Kloodt / PMI, Kiel University

The 2021 winners of the Dorothea Erxleben Female Investigator Awards (from left): Dr. Julia Pagel, Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology at UzL and UKSH, Lübeck Campus, Prof. Petra Bacher, Institute of Immunology at CAU and UKSH, Kiel Campus, and Dr. Corinna Bang, Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology at CAU and UKSH, Kiel Campus.

group picture
© C. Kloodt / PMI, Kiel University

The winners and laudators of the Dorothea Erxleben Female Investigator Awards 2021, from left: Dr. Julia Pagel, Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology of the UzL and UKSH, Campus Lübeck, Prof. Petra Bacher, Institute of Immunology of CAU and UKSH, Campus Kiel, Prof. Gabriele Gillessen-Kaesbach, President of UzL, Prof. Simone Fulda, President of CAU, and Dr. Corinna Bang, Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology of CAU and UKSH, Campus Kiel.

group picture
© C. Kloodt / PMI, Kiel University

f.l.: Dr. Julia Pagel, Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology of the UzL and UKSH, Campus Lübeck, Prof. Stefan Schreiber, Speaker of the Cluster of Excellence PMI, Prof. Petra Bacher, Institute of Immunology of the CAU and UKSH, Campus Kiel, Prof. Gabriele Gillessen-Kaesbach, President of UzL, Prof. Simone Fulda, President of CAU, Prof. Gabriela Riemekasten, PMI Patron of the Dorothea Erxleben Female Researcher Award, and Dr. Corinna Bang, Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology of CAU and UKSH, Campus Kiel.

Scientific contacts:

Prof. Dr. Petra Bacher
Institute of Immunology, CAU and UKSH, Kiel
0431 500-31005
Petra.Bacher@uksh.de

Dr. Corinna Bang
Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology, CAU and UKSH Kiel
0431 500-15157
c.bang@ikmb.uni-kiel.de

Dr. Julia Pagel
Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology, UzL and UKSH, Lübeck
0451 500-45319
Julia.Pagel@uksh.de

About the Cluster of Excellence PMI

The Cluster of Excellence "Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation" (PMI) is being funded from 2019 to 2025 through the German Excellence Strategy (ExStra). It succeeds the "Inflammation at Interfaces” Cluster, which was already funded in two periods of the Excellence Initiative (2007-2018). Around 300 members from eight institutions at four locations are involved: Kiel (Kiel University, University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH), Muthesius University of Fine Arts and Design, Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN)), Lübeck (University of Lübeck, University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH)), Plön (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology) and Borstel (Research Center Borstel - Leibniz Lung Center).

The goal is to translate interdisciplinary research findings on chronic inflammatory diseases of barrier organs to healthcare more intensively, as well as to fulfil previously unsatisfied needs of the patients. Three points are important in the context of successful treatment, and are therefore at the heart of PMI research: the early detection of chronic inflammatory diseases, the prediction of disease progression and complications, and the prediction of individual responses to treatment.

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