Nobel Laureate to serve as scientific director for Max Planck Florida Institute

Bert Sakmann will serve as the inaugural scientific director of the Max Planck Florida Institute

June 03, 2009

Dr. Peter Gruss, president of Germany’s Max Planck Society, today announced that Bert Sakmann, M.D., Ph.D. will serve as the inaugural scientific director of the Max Planck Florida Institute, the organization’s 100,000-square-foot biomedical research facility at Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) MacArthur Campus in Jupiter, Fla. Dr. Sakmann is the 1991 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and was previously director at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg. He currently works at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Munich.

"Dr. Sakmann is an excellent choice for inaugural director of the Max Planck Society in the United States due to his international scientific credentials and his long relationship with our research organization," said Dr. Gruss. "He truly understands our mission and standards of excellence, and he will be a remarkable ambassador for everything the Max Planck Society represents as we establish our institute in Florida."

Dr. Sakmann, with physicist Erwin Neher, was awarded the Nobel Prize for their discoveries on single channels in cells, enabled by their invention of the patch-clamp technique. This ground-breaking technical achievement made it possible to examine, in real time, the operation of individual ion channel proteins. Ion channels are found in the membranes of virtually all cells and create selective pores across membranes that are vital for electrical signaling. Sakmann and Neher examined a broad range of cellular functions, eventually discovering the role that ion channels play in diseases such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, several cardiovascular diseases and certain neuromuscular disorders. This technique forged new paths in the study of membrane physiology and the creation of novel therapeutics targeting ion channels. In fact, the Nobel Prize committee credited the two scientists with revolutionizing modern biology.

More recently Dr. Sakmann’s research has focused on the functional anatomy of circuits in the brain - specifically the cerebral cortex - that form the basis of simple behaviors (e.g. decision making). His research involves the use of large scale, high resolution light- and electron-microscopic techniques to reconstruct the wiring of different cell types in the layers of the brain. The results are used to realistically simulate signal flow in the reconstructed network. Eventually, this may reveal the parts of the network that trigger sensory initiated behavior and lead to new discoveries about the brain’s process of learning.

Under Dr. Sakmann’s direction and leadership, the Max Planck Florida Institute plans to initiate a research program dedicated to the elucidation of the detailed and precise structural arrangement of nerves within the mouse cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is a structure within the brain that plays a key role in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language, and consciousness. Dr. Sakmann and his researchers will create a three-dimensional atlas of nerve cell bodies, dendrites and axons by first labeling the different cell types with specific fluorescent markers and then imaging and quantifying the neuron distributions to create a three-dimensional map of the normal brain. This work will lay the foundation for future studies on brain degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. The research will not only help further our basic understanding of the degenerative disease process, but could also serve as a platform to measure the beneficial changes caused by novel therapeutic approaches such as new drugs and stem cell therapy.

Dr. Sakmann will begin assembling his research team this summer and start work in the temporary facility, previously occupied by Scripps Florida, on FAU’s MacArthur campus. Dr. Sakmann and his group will lay the foundation of the Institute´s scientific work, and additional scientific leaders will be recruited to the Max Planck Florida Institute in the near future.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Dr. Sakmann has received awards from some of the most prestigious organizations throughout the world, most recently including the 2008 Cartwright Prize from Columbia University. He is also a Foreign Member of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, and in January he was the featured speaker at the 2009 Nobel Laureate Lecture at FAU’s campus in Boca Raton, Fla.

The Max Planck Florida Institute has established relationships with Florida Atlantic University and other universities around the state, as well as the Palm Beach County K-12 School District, in order to enhance and advance bioscience programs at all levels of education.

The Business Development Board of Palm Beach County anticipates that the Max Planck Florida Institute will support the creation of more than 1,800 jobs - both directly and indirectly - over the next two decades, and generate more than $2 billion in economic activity.

The Max Planck Society is an independent, non-profit scientific research organization with an annual operating budget of $1.8 billion and 81 institutes located through the European Union and now in the United States. The Society pioneers research at the frontiers of human knowledge in the natural sciences, life sciences, and the humanities. It has 17 Nobel Prize Laureates to its credit since its inception in 1948, a staff of 13,000, and an additional 12,000 fellows of the International Max Planck Research Schools, doctoral students, post-doctoral students, assistants and visiting scientists. The organization is credited with 1,000 inventions, averages 120-150 new patents each year, and has earned numerous scientific and academic awards. Most recently, Max Planck scientists were part of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander Team that received the 2009 Swigert Award for Space Exploration for developing the sensor used on the robotic arm of the Lander that led to one of the most startling and meaningful discoveries of the new millennium.

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