Professor Dr Robert Zeiser receives DKMS Mechtild Harf Science Award 2024

Professor Dr Robert Zeiser receives DKMS Mechtild Harf Science Award 2024

Mechtild Harf Science Award 2024

Hyderabad/Tuebingen, 20th April 2024: The DKMS Stiftung Leben Spenden honored Professor Dr Robert Zeiser, one of the world’s most exceptional scientists in the field of allogeneic stem cell transplantation, with the DKMS Mechtild Harf Science Award 2024. The award recognizes the lifetime achievements of internationally renowned physicians and scientists in the field of stem cell transplantation and cellular therapy. “Prof Dr Robert Zeiser’s findings in fundamental research of Graft-versus-Host Disease have led to new therapeutic approaches that are changing standard practices and are significantly improving the outcome for patients after stem cell transplantation. This is also true of his studies on the control of disease relapse after transplantation,” explains Prof Dr Katharina Fleischhauer, member of the DKMS Medical Council and Head of the Institute for Cell Therapy Research at Essen University Hospital, in recognition of this year’s award winner. Zeiser, Head of the Department of Tumor Immunology and Immune Regulation, and Head of the Zeiser Laboratory at the Department of Internal Medicine I at Freiburg University Hospital accepted the award on 15 April 2024 in the presence of doctors and guests from all over the world at the annual EBMT (European Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation) meeting in Glasgow. At the ceremony, four outstanding young scientists in the field of blood cancer therapy were also awarded the highly coveted DKMS John Hansen Research Grant 2024.

“Zeiser is one of the most internationally renowned scientists in the field of allogeneic stem cell transplantation, and he has decisively advanced our understanding of the mechanisms of Graft-versus-Host disease (GvHD),” said Prof Fleischhauer at the presentation of the DKMS Mechtild Harf Science Award, which comes with 10,000 Euro. “The new therapeutic principles based on his findings in the treatment of this serious complication are a prime example of successfully implementing fundamental research findings to improve patient care.”

New therapy to counter life-threatening immune recations

For the majority of patients with acute leukemia, an allogeneic blood stem cell transplant remains the only hope of a cure. However, the therapy is associated with risks: After the transplantation, around one in two patients experiences a life-threatening immune reaction known as Graft-versus-Host disease (GvHD). In this case, certain cells (T cells) in the donor’s transplant recognize the recipient’s cells or organs as foreign and cause damage to them. GvHD triggers painful inflammation in various organs. Around half of GvHD patients do not respond to standard immunosuppressive therapies, such as cortisone, and for a long time, no alternative treatment was available. This has changed thanks to the work of Prof Zeiser and his team. Through detailed research into the disease processes, they recognized that an active substance from the Janus kinase inhibitor family can inhibit the inflammatory messengers that occur in GvHD. With the help of an already-approved cancer drug, the undesired reaction can be mitigated and partially prevented. The results of an initiated international multicentric phase-III study led to the approval of Ruxolitinib for the treatment of acute and corticosteroid-refractory GvHD.

Through further research, Zeiser and his team were able to prove that the acute immune reaction after a transplant often begins in the intestine, as it loses its barrier function. “Our analyses showed that blood cancer cells can influence and even switch off the function of immune cells with the help of lactic acid. We now want to investigate exactly how these processes take place. We aim to find new, targeted therapies that can prevent serious complications after a stem cell transplant,” says Zeiser, who is also the spokesperson for the Collaborative Research Centre 1479 OncoEscape and a member of the Cluster of Excellence CIBSS (Centre for Integrative Biological Signalling Studies).

How young scientists help to improve blood cancer treatment

During the ceremony, four outstanding fellows were also announced as the recipients of the prized DKMS John Hansen Research Grants 2024: Livius Peter, MD (Charité, University Hospital Berlin, Germany), Tobias Wertheimer, MD (University of Freiburg, Germany), Senthil Bhoopalan, MD, PhD (Memphis, USA), and Nicoletta Cieri, MD, PhD (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, USA). All four of these excellent young scientists are currently working on research priorities in the field of blood cancer therapy. These include the early diagnosis of disease relapses, the development of a GvHD prognosis tool, cellular interactions between immune and leukemia cells, as well as rare diseases such as Diamond-Blackfan anemia (DBA). “We are convinced that supporting young medical and scientific talent is a valuable investment in the future,” emphasized Prof Dr Marcel van den Brink, Chairman of the DKMS Medical Advisory Board. With the DKMS John Hansen Research Grant, up to four young scientists are given the opportunity each year to advance their research projects in the field of stem cell transplantation and cell therapy for blood cancer. The grant awards recipients 240,000 Euro over three years. Information on the call for applications and the application process for the DKMS John Hansen Research Grant is available here.