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New paths in drug research

No. 52 | 07/12/2016 | by Koh

The need for novel drugs has never been greater. Average lifespans are increasing and the demand for new medications against common diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and dementia is continuously rising. The discovery of new drugs, once an almost exclusive realm of the pharmaceutical industry, is now increasingly being performed in research institutions. Therefore, the Helmholtz Drug Research Initiative is hosting its first public conference on this topic at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) on December 8 and 9, 2016.

A compound binds to an enzyme and inhibits its function
© Aubry Miller, DKFZ

"Over the past decades, the pharmaceutical industry has scaled back resources dedicated to the early stages of drug discovery. To develop innovative compounds, companies are now increasingly using new collaboration models with academic researchers," says Aubry Miller from the DKFZ, one of the conference organizers. "Therefore, universities and research institutions such as Helmholtz play an ever more important role in drug discovery."

Following an invitation by the Drug Research Initiative in the Helmholtz Association, approximately 190 participants from research and industry will meet in Heidelberg to present recent findings and discuss new strategies.

The supply of urgently needed new drugs crucially depends on scientists unraveling misguided cellular processes or altered biomolecules, which are the underlying causes of individual diseases. These malfunctioning cellular components are the so-called "targets" for new therapies, which drug molecules are designed to interfere with. Developing new drugs involves tremendous costs and, lamentably, many substance candidates that seem promising at first have to be abandoned in the clinical trials that follow. Therefore, it is critical to devise screening methods for new compounds that are as clinically relevant as possible.

Joe Lewis from theEuropean Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) will present an example of this approach. He will talk about the search for substances against extremely malignant childhood brain cancers that feature characteristic mutations. In collaboration with Stefan Pfister (DKFZ and Heidelberg University Hopital), he developed a screening system that examines thousands of test substances in two different brain cancer cell lines that differ from each other in a single DNA mutation. The goal is to find specific agents that exclusively kill tumor cells that exhibit one of the two mutations and not the other one.

Many of our most important antibiotics have become ineffective due to resistance mechanisms and, therefore, urgently need to be replaced by novel classes of substances. Deniz Taşdemir from the Geomar Helmholtz Center and the University of Kiel considers the diversity of marine microorganisms, which is still largely unexplored, to be a promising source for new substances with antibiotic effects. She will talk about her plans to examine the chemically diverse
components of marine algae and fungi for their effectiveness against major pathogens.

The conference agenda also features the presentation of substances that are already in an advanced stage of drug development. Stefan Pusch (DKFZ) and Olaf Panknin (Bayer) will present one of these candidates, which will shortly be tested in a clinical trial. The substance specifically inhibits a particular type of mutation in an enzyme called IDH1 that frequently occurs in cancer cells and drives, for example, the growth of brain cancer and leukemia. The DKFZ is collaborating with Bayer in drug research: The company and the research center jointly identify promising candidates and then collaboratively develop them further.

So-called epigenetic mutations in DNA crucially determine which genes are available for "reading" in a cell. Substances that influence epigenetic processes will play a major role in the treatment of cancer and also of neurodegenerative diseases in the future. They will therefore be addressed at the conference in a separate topic block.

Novel drugs based on small RNA molecules are also regarded as promising agents of the future and will be a topic at the conference. Examples include the minute siRNAs, which can be used to turn off specific genes, and so-called ribozymes – RNA molecules that can execute the function of enzymes and thus interfere with pathogenic cellular process.

Journalists are welcome to attend the conference.

Conference program:

A picture is available at:

Caption: A compound binds to an enzyme and inhibits its function

Note on use of images related to press releases
Use is free of charge. The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) permits one-time use in the context of reporting about the topic covered in the press release. Images have to be cited as follows: "Source: Aubry Miller, DKFZ".

Distribution of images to third parties is not permitted unless prior consent has been obtained from DKFZ's Press Office (phone: ++49-(0)6221 42 2854, E-mail: Any commercial use is prohibited.


With more than 3,000 employees, the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) is Germany’s largest biomedical research institute. DKFZ scientists identify cancer risk factors, investigate how cancer progresses and develop new cancer prevention strategies. They are also developing new methods to diagnose tumors more precisely and treat cancer patients more successfully. The DKFZ's Cancer Information Service (KID) provides patients, interested citizens and experts with individual answers to questions relating to cancer.

To transfer promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improve the prognosis of cancer patients, the DKFZ cooperates with excellent research institutions and university hospitals throughout Germany:

  • National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT, 6 sites)
  • German Cancer Consortium (DKTK, 8 sites)
  • Hopp Children's Cancer Center (KiTZ) Heidelberg
  • Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON Mainz) - A Helmholtz Institute of the DKFZ
  • DKFZ-Hector Cancer Institute at the University Medical Center Mannheim
  • National Cancer Prevention Center (jointly with German Cancer Aid)
The DKFZ is 90 percent financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and 10 percent by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers.


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