Discovering nature

18 February 2013

Robots search for new drugs to fight cancer and Alzheimer's and analyze the effects of nanoparticles in humans: at the Mainz Screening Center, Professor Dr. Roland Stauber and his colleagues work in a whole range of fields. The Mainz Screening Center is at the hub of a widely distributed network consisting of a group of highly varied institutions.

The friendly receptionist at the hospital's front desk has never heard of the Mainz Screening Center. "But I do have a Professor Stauber working here." She checks her files to see where exactly he can be found. "Ah, in the lab. You'll find that over there at the rear of the building."

And at the rear of the building is where we find Roland Stauber already waiting for us. He makes room among the documents that are piled up on his desk. In the background there is an aquarium with an abundance of aquatic plants that helps introduce a touch of green into the office. The Professor of Molecular and Cellular Oncology of the Department of Otolaryngology, Head, and Neck Surgery at the Mainz University Medical Center is amused by what happened at the front desk. "We researchers are a bit exotic here, but we are the hope for the patients of tomorrow," he comments dryly. He then turns to the real topic of this meeting: the Mainz Screening Center, or MSC for short.

Fungi, bacteria, and sponges

The aim is to discover new and effective active therapeutic agents. This may appear easy enough, but looks can be deceiving. The pharmaceutical industry and physicians are hungry for new substances, better drugs, and new therapies. "In the past, the focus was on synthetic drugs in particular," says Stauber. "However, we are mainly interested in natural substances that can be isolated from fungi, bacteria, or sponges. The advantage is that evolution has already had a hand in honing the efficacy of such agents. Nothing survives for long in the natural world if it doesn't do its job properly. So we can exploit this process of evolutionary preselection."

It is already known that there is an abundance of natural substances that are likely to be useful. There is a lot to be discovered in the tropics, in particular. "However, you don't need to travel so far," explains Stauber. "The diversity of bacteria in our local soil also has a great potential."

There is absolutely no shortage of chemical compounds to be investigated. Stauber has something like 30,000 different ones in mind. But which substance has what effect, if it is effective at all? This is where the Mainz Screening Center, founded and headed by Stauber, comes into its own. The robotic platforms at the Center can test substances with extraordinary speed.

Chemists, biologists, and physicians

The MSC is the central cornerstone of a network of institutions working in the ChemBioMed research consortium. Chemists, biologists, bioinformaticians, physicians, and pharmacists from a wide of range of institutes work to create research chains that begin with the recovery of natural substances and ideally end with the development of a medical application. The Institute of Biotechnology and Drug Research (IBWF), the Mainz University Medical Center, and Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, among others, are on board.

The young ChemBioMed initiative and the MSC are not yet widely known. However, the Carl Zeiss Foundation contributed EUR 1 million last year to promote the work of the consortium. "Something like this helps with our development and draws attention to what we are doing."

Both is important because ultimately there is a lot at stake. New agents for treating cancer and Alzheimer's are urgently needed. "We really should not content ourselves with the range of currently available drugs, particularly when it comes to treating tumors," Stauber emphasizes firmly.

Cancer cells and adhesives

It is true that pharmaceutical companies have their own computerized screening centers. They are also constantly searching for new therapeutic agents. "But we have an advantage," adds Stauber. "In business enterprises, someone is always worrying about whether a project will prove to be commercially worthwhile. We do not have such constraints and can thus pursue bolder approaches."

A perfect example is the work with the protein taspase 1. Elevated levels of taspase 1 are present in cancer cells. It is probable that the enzyme disables important cellular control mechanisms. "We have discovered that if you glue taspase 1 molecules together you can block their tumor-promoting potential." All that is now needed is the right adhesive. This is where the MSC comes into the picture. In the meantime, researchers have their sights set on substances from fungi and sponges.

"Would you like me to show you around the lab?," Stauber asks as he leads the way. But there is not much to see for the layperson. There are no robots working here, it’s people. Individual samples are being transferred using pipettes, many of which are being examined under a microscope over which stands a notice with the cautionary words: "If you do not know how to use it, ask!"

Robots and researchers

The main part of the Mainz Screening Center is located in another building, the so-called multi-purpose building located outside the hospital premises. There is a whole cluster of projects funded by third parties being pursued here. One door bears a label: "Home of the MSC." Behind it is a small room containing equipment and boxes. "We've just taken delivery of a pipetting device," says Stauber, apologizing for the clutter. The new robot and server for the enormous amounts of data still need to be installed.

Its centerpiece is a robotic microscope. "It can scan up to 500 cells simultaneously," Stauber explains. "And that repeatedly in up to 384 different containers." The robot's programming is important. The researchers must first carefully consider which substance they wish to analyze and how and on what they wish to examine it. Then, once the robot has been given this information, off it goes …

The Mainz Screening Center is plowing a vast field. One of its projects involves studying the effect of nanoparticles on the human body. Nanoparticles are already being used in many everyday products, such as sunscreen. Even medical applications for nanoparticles are in the process of being developed. But what exactly do they do when they enter human cells?

Publicity and Public Relations

The space occupied by the MSC only measures a few square meters. "The devices you see around you are worth something like EUR 1 million," states Stauber. "They will not only benefit research. Anyone who learns how to use these robots while still a student will subsequently find that companies are only to keen to hire them."

All of this just needs to be made more widely known. The Mainz Screening Center is looking for new partners – and it is in the ideal location, based at it is in the Mainz University Medical Center,  in the immediate vicinity of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, and near pharmaceutical companies. Everything indicates that other research chains will be developed here in the future. "Thanks to the sponsorship of the Carl Zeiss Foundation, we are now able to begin to take new research pathways," Stauber explains. The professor has an enterprising spirit.

"Of course, we are also involved in promotional publicity and public relations," affirms Stauber, as he takes his leave outside the Department of Otolaryngology, Head, and Neck Surgery. "Come back again soon," he calls, before disappearing past the receptionist on his way back to the lab.