Professor Thomas F. Meyer receives the Robert Koch Gold Medal for his life's work

This year, one of the highest awards in infection biology goes to the future Kiel senior professor



This year’s Robert Koch Gold Medal, one of the top scientific awards in the field of infection medicine, goes to the German infectious diseases specialist Professor Thomas F. Meyer. This was announced on Monday (June 8) by the Robert Koch Foundation. The Foundation thereby recognizes the outstanding scientific life’s work of Professor Meyer, who has already set many milestones in infection research, right up to uncovering causal mechanisms in the pathogenesis of cancer. Professor Meyer, currently Director of the Molecular Biology Department at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology (MPIIB) in Berlin, will in future pursue his work in infection and cancer research as a senior professor at the Faculty of Medicine at Kiel University (CAU), and thus also boost research at the Cluster of Excellence "Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation" (PMI). The awarding of the medal will take place in Berlin on November 13, 2020.

"Throughout my academic career, I have always been fascinated by the study of fundamental interrelationships, and used innovative methods to pursue this," said Professor Meyer. "The Robert Koch Gold Medal is great recognition for it," continued the infection biologist. Meyer's scientific focus areas lie in researching the molecular mechanisms of bacterial and viral infections, the particular importance of host cells during an infection, the development of oral live vaccines and the concept of "host-directed therapy", as well as understanding the role of bacterial pathogens in the pathogenesis of cancer. Many of the discoveries from Meyer's laboratory are now included in standard textbooks.

Meyer to become senior professor at Kiel University

With recently-awarded funding from the European Research Council (ERC Grant), Meyer can continue his pioneering research on the role of infections in the pathogenesis of cancer in humans in the coming years. After numerous appointments as an honorary and senior professor at national and international universities, Meyer now plans to get actively involved in key aspects of infection and cancer research at his future primary location, Kiel University (CAU).

"On behalf of the entire University Board, I would like to congratulate Professor Meyer on this outstanding achievement. Together with the numerous other prizes and grants, this emphasizes the importance of Meyer's research work in the area of infectious diseases," said the CAU Vice President for Research, Professor Karin Schwarz. "We are very proud that Professor Meyer has his new scientific home with us at Kiel University. The close integration of medicine, biology and nutritional sciences, which Professor Meyer is well-known for, represents a future-oriented scientific extension to our priority research area in the life sciences," continued Schwarz. This senior professorship, lasting five years, honors selected, outstanding individuals with nationally and internationally acclaimed research achievements or particular teaching achievements. Thomas Meyer will take up his new post in Kiel on 1 September this year.

"I am delighted that Professor Meyer will continue his world-class research at the Faculty of Medicine at the CAU. His decision to join us is a great honor for our Faculty, and underlines the scientific attractiveness of medicine and life sciences in Kiel," said Professor Joachim Thiery, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the CAU and Director of Research and Teaching at the UKSH. "With his internationally highly-valued expertise, he will also boost the work of the Cluster of Excellence "Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation", and thereby help to better understand inflammations with the challenge of infections," continued Thiery. "I am also delighted that in Professor Thomas Meyer, we have gained a scientist and university lecturer who can also pass on his unique expertise in "the next generation of biological tools", the production of small organ systems from cells ("organoids"), to our doctoral researchers and post-docs in Kiel. The current research of Professor Meyer also opens up new paths in the targeted fight against infection with SARS-CoV-2, and significantly strengthens the future path of microbiome and inflammation research in Kiel."

The development of host-directed therapy for infections

Early on, Meyer already formulated the provocative hypothesis that pathogens can also be eliminated through the host, i.e. by blocking the function of human cells, and not only as previously done by pathogen-specific antibiotics or antiviral substances. For many years, he studied the roles of host components in infection processes, and played a major part in developing the concept of "host-directed therapy." In addition to the use of vaccines and antibiotics, this has now become a third pillar in the modern fight against pathogens. A particular advantage is that the dreaded development of resistance can be avoided, and it is possible to also use proven medicines for other diseases, such as cancer, in the fight against infections.

The importance of pathogens in the development of cancer

These studies gave rise to the question of the fate of host cells which have undergone an infection: are human cells so badly damaged during an infection that they can cause more diseases in the body? The pathogen "Helicobacter pylori" is known to not only cause stomach ulcers, but can also trigger stomach cancer in the long term. Meyer searched for a "fingerprint", a genetic signature, to provide evidence of a correlation between infections and pathogenesis of cancer, and succeeded. In fact, his most recent research results not only corroborate the importance of Helicobacter in the pathogenesis of stomach cancer; they also provide evidence of the effect of certain intestinal bacteria which damage the human genome with a poison. As Meyer found out in his investigations, a toxin from "Escherichia coli" bacteria causes a specific pattern of mutations in the human gut, which was found again years later as a fingerprint in the cells of a group of patients with bowel cancer. These observations provide the first clear evidence of the role of the pathogen in the development of cancer in humans.

Laboratory test system for drugs against COVID-19

Back in the 1990s, Meyer began developing organ-like structures in the laboratory, using them to better understand infection processes as well as the development of cancer cells. By now, Meyer's research team has developed these so-called "organoids" from epithelial cells of various organs, such as the lungs. Meyer has already used the lung test systems for studies on influenza viruses. Since these cells express the so-called ACE-2 receptor, which serves as the entry gate for the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 into the human lung, Meyer is now using them to test potential drugs against COVID-19.

Vita of Prof. Thomas F. Meyer
Thomas F. Meyer studied biology at Heidelberg University and graduated with a Diplom degree in microbiology, genetics, biochemistry and chemistry in 1977. Two years later, he received his doctorate there in natural sciences, graduating with distinction ('summa cum laude'). In 1980, he moved to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York as a post-doc, then under the leadership of James D. Watson, where he teamed up with Magdalena So to initiate a project for researching the molecular mechanisms of the antigenic variation of bacterial surface proteins. He continued this highly-acclaimed work at the Public Health Research Institute of New York City in 1981, under the leadership of Richard P. Novick, and then from 1982 onwards at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in the department led by Hartmut Hoffmann-Berling. In 1983, Thomas Meyer took on the position of group leader at the newly-founded Center for Molecular Biology at Heidelberg University (ZMBH), and in 1985 was appointed as research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen. There he continued his ground-breaking discoveries on the molecular pathogenesis of microorganisms. Soon he received numerous offers from renowned institutes, among others to be head of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in conjunction with a professorship at the Universität Hamburg (University of Hamburg), or director of the Institute of Molecular Biology at the Hannover Medical School. In 1990, he was appointed director of the independent Department of Infection Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, which he led until the year 2000. His fascination with research finally led Thomas Meyer to Berlin in 1994, where he was founding director of the new Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology (MPIIB) in Berlin, as head of the Molecular Biology Department. He is involved in various organizations, including serving as an elected member of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) since 1989 and the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina since 2001. From September, Meyer will continue his research as a senior professor at his future primary location, Kiel University.

About the Robert Koch Foundation
The Robert-Koch-Stiftung e. V (Robert Koch Foundation) is a non-profit foundation established in 1907 for the promotion of medical progress, with headquarters in Berlin. It supports fundamental scientific research in the field of infectious diseases, as well as exemplary projects to address medical and hygienic problems. Each year, the Foundation awards a number of prestigious scientific prizes: the Robert Koch Gold Medal, the Robert Koch Prize, three awards for young scientists, and the Prize for Hospital Hygiene and Infection Prevention.

Prof. Joachim Thiery
Dean of the CAU’s Faculty of Medicine
+49 431-500 14422

golden medal
© David Außerhofer

The Robert Koch Foundation awards the Robert Koch Gold Medal annually to honor the outstanding life's work of scientists. Many prizewinners have subsequently been awarded a Nobel Prize.

portrait picture
© Max-Planck-Institut für Infektionsbiologie / David Ausserhofer

Professor Thomas F. Meyer, future senior professor at the Faculty of Medicine at Kiel University, is this year’s Robert Koch Gold Medal recipient for his outstanding scientific life's work.

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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