From natural substances to active ingredients

From natural substances to active ingredients

Antibiotic-producing sponges, plants that form antimalarial active ingredients – nature provides a vast reservoir of substances that can be used as active ingredients in medical and industrial applications. Together with the Japanese RIKEN research institute, the Max Planck Society has established the RIKEN Max Planck Joint Research Center for Systems Chemical Biology. The researchers at the Center aim to identify and study new active ingredients and investigate how active ingredients affect proteins. Accordingly, the two research institutions are establishing a platform on which they can bundle knowledge, experience and infrastructure, as well as new research methods and technologies.

The founding team of the new Center comprises four top scientists: two Max Planck Directors, Herbert Waldmann and Peter Seeberger, and two researchers from RIKEN, Hiroyuki Osada and Naoyuki Taniguchi. The aim of the joint venture is to promote exchange among experts and to support junior scientists. Two International Max Planck Research Schools (IMPRS), at which talented young scientists go through a structured doctoral programme, are integrated into the Center’s research. Communication between the scientists is also fostered through regular exchanges of scientists and doctoral students, opportunities for internships and symposia.

Comprehensive research in the field of chemical systems biology involves the use of numerous new technologies that are not usually available in research organisations. Some research institutes have developed special expertise in particular research fields, but need to consistently cooperate with partners with complementary expertise.

The RIKEN Global Research Cluster, which is located in Wako north of Tokyo, the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology in Dortmund and the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam all have high-achieving departments in the field of chemical biology. The bundling of their respective strengths in a joint research group enables the establishment of a unit that will facilitate comprehensive research activities.

The group at the RIKEN Global Research Cluster, headed by Hiroyuki Osada, is particularly successful at isolating and characterising natural substances and their use in chemical biology. The group has succeeded in developing a high-performance proteomics platform that enables the identification of chemical points of attack on proteins. The technology for isolating powerful small molecules from natural substances is not currently available at any Max Planck institute.

Herbert Waldmann’s department at the Max Planck Institute in Dortmund has extensive knowledge and experience in the design and synthesis of substance compounds derived from natural substances, their use in biochemical and cell-based tests, and the identification of their biological target molecules. The group has compiled a collection of approximately 10,000 active-ingredient-like molecules derived from and inspired by natural substances. It is intended to grow this collection in future to over 100,000 substances and to study them in biological screenings, which will be carried out by RIKEN ASI and the Max Planck Society. This will open up new possibilities for the partner organisations. It will be possible to test the substances simultaneously and extremely efficiently in high throughput experiments for a large number of target proteins or reaction networks of interest. The benefits arising from this work will not be limited to basic research. The studies will make a major contribution to the translation of research findings into medical applications and the development of completely new and promising therapeutic approaches.

System glycobiology is concerned with the structure, synthesis and biology of sugar chains, which influence a wide variety of biological processes. This research field promises to provide, among other things, a better understanding of diseases, as well as new diagnostics and therapeutics, for example the development of new vaccines against malaria and hospital-acquired infections. Peter Seeberger from the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam is a renowned expert in this field. The Potsdam-based Institute is the only place in the world where the collections of compounds necessary for systems glycobiology and technologies, like automated synthesis, carbohydrate microarrays, sequencing and bioinformatics, are available under one roof.

Within the field of glycomics, Naoyuki Taniguchi’s group at the RIKEN Global Research Cluster specialises in the treatment of diseases and has attained a leading position in the area of glycometabolomics and structural microbiology. The group is particularly experienced in the fields that have not yet been developed in the Seeberger department, in particular the animal models and structural glycobiology. While the Seeberger group has defined oligosaccharides and can contribute tools arising from them, e.g. glycan arrays, the Taniguchi team are experts in the field of glycomics for the treatment of diseases. The Max Planck technologies are the key to the applied medical research on which work is being carried out in Japan. The merging of the two research activities will make it possible to create an integrated expert group that can apply the advantages of basic techniques in the research of disease-relevant issues.


Picture: Hiroyuki Osada, RIKEN © dpa/MPG

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