Cluster PMI promotes outstanding female researchers with a total of €200,000

The Cluster of Excellence PMI has awarded three of its most exceptional female researchers in Lübeck, Borstel and Kiel the highly endowed Dorothea Erxleben Female Investigator Award.

The Cluster of Excellence “Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation” (PMI) awarded three Dorothea Erxleben Female Investigator Awards to outstanding female scientists conducting research on inflammation. This year’s award winners will receive funding of €100,000 for one award and €50,000 for two further awards. The award ceremony took place today (November 9, 2023) as part of the symposium "Sex and Gender Aspects in Precision Medicine" organized by the Cluster of Excellence PMI at the Atlantic Hotel in Kiel. 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 Prof. Silke Szymczak (UzL), Prof. Sabrina Jabs (CAU) and Prof. Silke Meiners (Research Center Borstel/CAU).

"It is a great and personal pleasure for me to congratulate this year's prize winners on their awards. They show that top scientific achievements, especially by female researchers, require excellent framework conditions, such as those created by our Cluster of Excellence PMI in an exemplary manner and with radiance for the entire CAU," emphasized Prof. Simone Fulda, President of Kiel University, at the award ceremony.

 "The Dorothea Erxleben Female Investigator Awards give the prize winners the opportunity to devote themselves intensively to their own research. They have established themselves as an important instrument for promoting women in science in the best possible way. I am very impressed by the achievements of all three prize winners; they are all shining examples of successful female researchers," 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 in hospitals and clinics and in research. They 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 now the third 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. Silke Szymczak, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at Lübeck Medical School at the University of Lübeck, is receiving the sum of €100,000. Silke Szymczak works on methods of machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence, which are used to develop predictive models based on clinical, genetic and other molecular data. In her methodological research, she develops new statistical methods, refines existing ones and evaluates them to find out which methods are best suited under which conditions. "Until now, there has often been a lack of scientifically based systematic comparative studies that researchers can use to better decide which method they should use for their specific issues," explained Szymczak. She is also responsible for statistical analyses in biomedical cooperation projects, including with various research groups from the Cluster, with a focus on molecular data.

In the funded project, Szymczak wants to use artificial intelligence to develop strategies and software to combine a variety of different clinical and molecular data in the development of predictive models. "A major challenge in precision medicine is the integration of these heterogeneous, complex and extensive data sets and it is unclear which methods should be used to enable the most accurate prediction possible," she explained. The strategies developed in the project will be used to predict whether conventional therapy will respond in a child recently diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. There are also plans to apply the findings to further data and issues in the Cluster.

Prof. Sabrina Jabs is receiving one of the two Dorothea Erxleben Female Investigator Awards with accompanying prize money of €50,000. Sabrina Jabs has been Junior Professor of Functional Genomics and Single Cell Analysis at the Faculty of Medicine at Kiel University and head of a Schleswig-Holstein Excellence Chair junior research group at the Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology (IKMB) at Kiel University and the University Hospital Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH), Campus Kiel, since 2020. She conducts her research in the field of epitranscriptomics. This is a form of gene regulation that influences when and to what extent mRNA, the chemical "transcript" of a gene, is converted into a protein. First, a gene is transcribed into mRNA, which then serves as a template for the production of a specific protein. A few years ago research showed that the regulation of this process is strongly influenced by the microorganisms living in and on the organism, i.e. the microbiota. This applies in particular to risk genes for chronic inflammatory diseases. This is where Sabrina Jabs' work comes in.

"We want to find out whether and, above all, how the chemical changes to the mRNA influenced by the intestinal microbiota are involved in the development of chronic inflammatory bowel diseases," explained Jabs. In the funded project, she therefore wants to investigate the function of so-called reader proteins. These are proteins that recognize this mRNA modification. "We already know that the levels of two specific reader proteins are different in patients with inflammatory bowel disease compared to healthy people, but we don't know why. We now want to analyze which mRNAs are regulated by these proteins and how this influences the formation of inflammation," continued Jabs.  

Prof. Silke Meiners, Leibniz Professor at the Faculty of Medicine at Kiel University and research group leader at the Research Center Borstel, Leibniz Lung Center, is also receiving the Dorothea Erxleben Female Investigator Award for €50,000. Silke Meiners conducts her research into what are known as proteasomes. These are structures that break down damaged, old or superfluous proteins in cells so that new proteins can be produced from them. Silke Meiners is particularly interested in immunoproteasomes, which occur in immune cells but are also activated in cells infected with viruses, for example. Parts of the proteins broken down by the immunoproteasome are presented as antigens on the surface of the infected cells. Certain immune cells, the cytotoxic T cells, recognize these antigens if they appear foreign to the immune system and then destroy the infected cell. This makes immunoproteasomes important for the immune system. At the same time, they play a central role in the formation of autoimmune reactions and diseases, in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's own structures.

These autoimmune diseases may also include pulmonary fibrosis, a rare but very serious disease that often leads to death after a few years. "We have detected molecular markers in the cells of the scarred lung tissue of these patients that indicate that both the immunoproteasome and cytotoxic T cells are activated there," Meiners continued. In the project now being funded, Meiners and other Cluster members want to investigate these T cells in more detail: "We want to use modern sequencing methods to analyze which antigens the cytotoxic T cells in the lung tissue of patients react to and thus contribute to the destruction of this lung tissue." This could provide clues as to the cause of an autoimmune reaction, such as a past viral infection. In addition, the immunoproteasome may not be involved in the disease to the same extent in all patients, which Meiners would also like to find out. "It is possible to inhibit the immunoproteasome. If we know which patients have decisive involvement by the immunoproteasome, we could offer them a new targeted therapy," Meiners continued. Such inhibitors are already undergoing clinical trials for other diseases. "There is still a long way to go before it can be used in pulmonary fibrosis, but it is a promising approach," said Meiners.

Scientific contacts:

Prof. Dr. Silke Szymczak
Institute of Medical Biometry and Statistics
University of Lübeck (UzL)
 0451 500 50600

Prof. Dr. Sabrina Jabs
Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology (IKMB)
Kiel University and the University Hospital Schleswig-Holstein, Kiel
 0431 500-15253

Prof. Dr. Silke Meiners
Immunology and Cell Biology, Program Area Chronic Lung Diseases
Research Center Borstel - Leibniz Lung Center
04537 1885846 

group photo
© S. Weimar/Cluster of Excellence PMI

The winners and laudators of the Dorothea Erxleben Female Investigator Awards 2023, from left: Prof. Gabriele Gillessen-Kaesbach, President of Luebeck University; Prof. Silke Szymczak, UzL; Prof. Sabrina Jabs, Kiel University and UKSH; Prof. Silke Meiners, FZB and Kiel University; Prof. Simone Fulda, President of Kiel University.

group photo
© S. Weimar/Cluster of Excellence PMI

From left: Prof. Gabriela Riemekasten, head of the organizing team; Prof. Gabriele Gillessen-Kaesbach, President of Luebeck University; Prof. Stefan Schreiber, PMI spokesperson; Prof. Silke Szymczak, Prof. Sabrina Jabs, Prof. Silke Meiners, award winners; Prof. Simone Fulda, President of Kiel University.

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.

Press office

Frederike Buhse
Public Relations, Excellence Cluster PMI

Cluster of Excellence "Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation"
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Twitter: PMI @medinflame