Cutting off tumour supply lines
The German Cancer Aid-Prize, King-Feisal-Prize, Wolf Foundation Prize in Medicine, Karl Heinz Beckurts-Prize, Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany... this is just a small selection of the awards and honours received by Prof. Dr. Axel Ullrich from the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry for his research – privately funded research, with which he has been able to pursue successful strategies for the treatment of cancer.
Thanks to Axel Ullrich’s pioneering scientific studies, cutting-edge cancer drugs have been developed and licensed, and successful strategies have been implemented for the treatment of cancer. He has made a crucial contribution to improving the recovery prospects and quality of life of many cancer patients. Via the Max Planck Foundation, two donors provided a total of € 750.000 to fund Axel Ullrich’s research.
It was far back as the mid-1980s, Ullrich and his team discovered that the growth of tumours can be inhibited if their supply of oxygen and nutrients is blocked. Growth factors and their receptors on the surface of cancer cells play a particularly important role here. Ullrich and his colleagues succeeded in detecting receptors which are crucial for the development of cancer. This laid the foundation for the development of the drug Trastuzumab (Herceptin®), which is now used in the successful treatment of breast cancer.
Another milestone in Ullrich’s career was the development of a multifunctional cancer drug Sutent®. This is an enzyme inhibitor that simultaneously flips multiple cellular switches that are important for the growth of tumours and of the blood vessels that supply them. The active ingredient blocks receptors on the surface of cancer cells. If certain molecules known as growth factors dock at these receptors, the receptor triggers a series of fatal signals. Sunitinib prevents this and the tumour dies.
Biochemist Axel Ullrich is certainly one of the Max Planck Society’s most entrepreneurial scientists. Over the course of approximately 30 years of research, he has established four companies and registered 60 patents. He is in demand at home and abroad. Axel Ullrich is involved in numerous scientific commissions, as well as business committees in a consultative capacity – from Denmark to California and from Shanghai to Canada. The honours he has received in the form of memberships and scientific organisations are legion: needless to say, he is a member of the prestigious German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, the Academia Europaea, the American Society for Cell Biology, the American Association for Cancer, and last but not least, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
At over 70 years of age, today Ullrich is still highly active in research. His current aim is to find ways of putting a definitive halt to the progress of cancer so that the patient can benefit from his or her normal life expectancy. As he sees it, cancer must become a controllable chronic disease, like diabetes or AIDS, whose sufferers can have a normal quality of life.