DFG Leibniz Prize:
Leibniz Prize for LMU‘s Erika von Mutius
What is the underlying cause of illnesses such as asthma and allergies, and how can one prevent them? These issues are at the heart of Erika von Mutius’ research. – And although the problem can be posed succinctly, the answers are hard to pin down, owing to the web of interactions between multiple diverse factors involved in the pathogenesis of these conditions. In several large-scale epidemiological studies, Professor von Mutius has shown that – in agreement with the so-called “hygiene hypothesis” – children who grow up on farms, in close proximity to animals, are less likely to develop allergy syndromes.
Furthermore, children who live in urban areas are less prone to asthma and allergies if they are brought into regular contact with other youngsters from a very early age. These findings suggest that if the immature immune system has to cope with the microbes encountered in the environment such as stables and barns, and thereby learns not to overreact when exposed to innocuous pollen. Nevertheless, it is clear that, in addition to environmental influences, genetic factors also play a significant role. Indeed, as co-coordinator of the EU-funded project GABRIEL, von Mutius also helped to identify a genetic variant associated with increased risk for asthma.
One in ten children develop asthmatic symptoms
Several other genetic risk factors are now known, which confer on their carriers an inborn predisposition to develop the disease. Some of these variants are located in genes that enable the immune system to respond appropriately to damage to the airway epithelium with virus infections and allergic reactions, and may impair their function. Other affected genes may control biochemical pathways that normally repair such damage. How such defects in the respiratory epithelium arise remains unclear, and much remains to be learned about the causative mechanisms involved. What is clear is that answers to these questions, and the therapeutic options they will suggest, are urgently needed. In Germany, every tenth child suffers from an asthmatic condition, and the incidence of asthma continues to increase.
Erika von Mutius heads the Department of Asthma and Allergology in the Outpatient Clinic at the Dr. von Hauner Children’s Hospital, which forms part of the LMU Medical Center. In October 2004, she was appointed Professor of Pediatric Allergology at LMU. Born in 1957, von Mutius studied Medicine at LMU from 1976 to 1984, and has specialized in Pediatric Medicine since 1992. She spent one year as research fellow with Prof. Fernando Martinez at the University of Arizona, USA and then returned to LMU. After completing her Habilitation in 1998, she went on to earn an MSc from the School of Public Health at Harvard University. In 2010, she received an honorary doctorate from Helsinki University and also won one of the prestigious Advanced Investigator Grants awarded by the European Research Council (ERC).
The Leibniz Prize is regarded as the most important research award in Germany. This year, eleven distinguished researchers have been chosen to receive it. Each prizewinner receives a total of 2.5 million euros in research support over a period of up to 7 years.