Two researchers breaking down walls: The biochemist Christian Hackenberger, who seeks and destroys cancer cells, and the chemist Chayanika Das, who fights magnesium corrosion

04. January 2021

Two researchers breaking down walls

The biochemist Christian Hackenberger, who seeks and destroys cancer cells, and the chemist Chayanika Das, who fights magnesium corrosion

Christian Hackenberger © WISTA Management GmbH

Biochemist Christian Hackeberger wants to combat cancer with superglue © WISTA Management GmbH

Chayanika Das © WISTA Management GmbH

Chayanika Das is a researcher at BAM bent on preventing magnesium corrosion © WISTA Management GmbH

Vivid, detailed, and laid-back is how Christian Hackeberger presented himself at the Falling Walls Conference, which was held digitally for the first time. He talks of sniffer dogs and bombs, of super glue and plastic wrap. The jury awarded the 44-year-old researcher of the Berlin-based Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP) with the Breakthrough Award in the life sciences category. Hackenberger, who is professor for chemical biology at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and his about 20-strong working group study how cancer cells can be targeted and viruses disabled.

“We have developed novel molecules capable of combating cancer and viral infections,” says the chemist. For this purpose, he didn’t use small molecules as was the classic approach of drug development, but used larger units like proteins and antibodies instead. Questioning the habitual, going your own way, and risking failures while doing so is fundamental for Hackenberger. Especially in an experimental science like chemistry. “We can predict some things with computers, but afterwards we have to conduct the decisive experiment that either confirms the theory, or not,” says the multi-award winning researcher.

The arduous research on phosphoramidates of the Lower Saxony native, who earned his PhD at RWTH Aachen after studying chemistry in Freiburg and Wisconsin, shows that this can prove a difficult path. Hackenberger uses such compounds to “put a rucksack on the back of a sniffer dog, who places a bomb in the cancer cell.” This image vividly describes the way he uses antibodies as “sniffer dogs” to infiltrate cancer cells. The antibodies are loaded with an agent capable of killing the cancer cell. Since the “sniffer dog” is not interested in healthy cells, this type of chemotherapy is gentle on the patients. Hackenberger’s team developed the “rucksack” needed for transporting the medications using phosphoramidates. No easy feat, because the rucksack must be attached in the right spot on the antibody, otherwise it will fall off the cancer cell. Put in the wrong place, the “bomb” would detonate too early and damage the healthy tissue.

Starting in 2005, when he became a professor at Free University Berlin, he has now been conducting this research for more than ten years. “Of course, there were many setbacks,” says Hackenberger. He now has several patents and launched “Tubulis Technologies”, a start-up founded in 2019 by FMP and LMU Munich, which develops new protein-drug conjugates.

Similar conjugated proteins are also effective against viral infections, for example, the flu and the avian influenza. “We developed a type of superglue that we can use to enclose the virus entirely, like plastic warp,” Hackenberger explains. This would render the virus incompetent. A proteine capsule from the human intestinal tract turned out to be an ideal adhesive. Like the influenza virus, its surface is studded with spikes and loops. Following chemical modification, it binds with the influenza virus perfectly, enveloping it completely, and making it unable to penetrate human cells. Can the method be applied to coronaviruses? Hackenberger is cautiously optimistic. “Scientific findings are not made with a flick of the wrist,” says the biochemist. “But we are on it!”

“It works, it works,” says Chayanika Das during our online meeting. The young chemist is a researcher at the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM). She wants to find out how components made of magnesium can be best protected against corrosion. In addition to being a light metal and an ideal construction material for car and aircraft building, magnesium is very susceptible to corrosion. The industry relies on inorganic coatings to prevent this. However, their production requires chemicals that are hazardous to health and the environment. Thick organic coatings are now applied to such layers that act like a protective blanket. Chayanika Das is taking a different path. To stop the corrosive attacks on the metal’s surface, she resorts to waver-thin layers of organic substances that are mixed with protective nanoparticles.

At the Falling Walls Lab Adlershof, she had only three minutes to present her innovative ideas. “I use a novel polymer that captures the magnesium ions released during corrosion,” says the chemist. Layer by layer, she makes a very thin protective casing grow on the surface, often reinforced with additional inhibitors. The latter are organic acids and amine compounds. In experiments at the BAM’s laboratories, Das was recently able to show that “it works”, it being a way to intercept impurities that make magnesium so susceptible to corrosion.

“I will break the wall of magnesium corrosion,” says Das, which convinced the Fall Walls Lab jury. In doing so, she qualified as one of 10 select young researchers worldwide to be invited for a presentation in the category Emerging Talents at the Falling Walls Day in Berlin. “Recording the video was exciting,” says the Indian chemist, who came to BAM through the Adolf-Martens-Fellowship programme after earning her PhD at the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune in 2018. That was followed by a two-year research stipend from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 2019. She wants to continue working in research after that.

She enjoys life in Berlin, especially the restaurants, Indian ones, too, and even likes currywurst with fries. She was used to going her own way, says Das. Her father encouraged her to. As did her sister, who too is a chemist. She came to Germany before her and now works as a researcher at Max Planck Institute in Mühlheim. Das now supports other Indians interested in German universities and research institutions. “I also help as much as I can with scientific issues.”

By Paul Janositz for Adlershof Journal

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