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When German President Horst Köhler awards the German Future Prize for
2008 on 3 December in Berlin, researchers and research projects funded
by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research
Foundation) will once again be the focus of attention. Professor Axel
Haverich, a heart surgeon and Leibniz prizewinner from Hannover Medical
School (MHH), and his two colleagues Dr. Serghei Cebotari and Dr.
Michael Harder are one of four teams who have made the final round of
the President's award for engineering and innovation, worth 250,000
euros. This is the result of the preliminary selection that was
announced on Tuesday by the Head of the Office of the Federal
President, Undersecretary of State Dr. Gert Haller, in Berlin. The
three scientists were nominated for the development and successful
transplantation of tissue engineered biological cardiac valves for
children , which grow with the patients – an innovation in both
medicine and medical technology which has been supported by the DFG
with funds from the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize.
The "decellularised and re-colonised pulmonary valves" developed by
Haverich and his team provide child patients with significantly
improved chances of survival and a better quality of life. In Europe
around 1,200 heart valve transplants a year are performed on children.
The mechanical heart valves normally used in these operations have the
disadvantage that they require lifelong blood thinning treatment and
are susceptible to infections. The biological heart valves from pigs or
cows used as an alternative are again only of limited durability.
Children with heart valve defects therefore normally have to undergo
multiple operations – with all the physical and psychological pressures
and risks this entails.
Haverich and his colleagues, on the other hand, use heart valves
that are "grown" from the young patient's natural body cells. To do
this, a valve from a human or animal donor is removed of all cells
using tissue engineering, so that only its outer framework remains.
This valve matrix is then colonised with cells that have been obtained
from the blood of the recipient and propagated. Within a few weeks, a
quasi-natural heart valve then emerges in this bioreactor, that
exhibits no rejection response or other faults, but instead grows with
the patient after the implantation.
The foundation for this innovation in medicine and medical
technology was laid in 1995. In that year the then 42-year old Haverich
was honoured by the DFG with Germany's most prestigious research prize,
the Leibniz Prize, for his groundbreaking scientific work in the area
of transplant medicine. One year later Haverich used the prize money of
three million German marks at that time to found the Leibniz Research
Laboratories for Biotechnology and Artificial Organs (LEBAO) at
Hannover Medical School. The first major project of the new
establishment was the development of "grown" heart valves. After six
years of development work and experiments on small and large animals,
in May 2002 Haverich was able to implant the first decellularised and
re-colonised heart valves into two children of nine and ten years of
age. Since then 16 children have been successfully operated on. The
first two patients have now been living with their new cardiac valves
for over six years – free of illness and comparable with healthy
children in terms of their physical development.
Haverich and his colleagues have documented the scientific bases of
their new treatment in great detail in numerous publications. A series
of patents and the establishment of two companies also testify to the
strong market potential of their innovation. This should grow
considerably further if such heart valves can also be implanted in
adults, a declared aim for Haverich. His work has since received
further impetus from the Excellence Initiative by the German federal
and state governments, which is funding the excellence cluster "From
Regenerative Biology to Reconstructive Therapy" (Rebirth) at the MHH,
in which Haverich is developing new methods of growing tissue in his
role as coordinator. All this has convinced the jury made up of
renowned experts from science and business in the preliminary selection
for the Federal President's Future Prize.
The German Future Prize has been awarded annually since 1997 and is
considered the most important innovation award in Germany. It is given
by the Federal President to honour scientists and inventors who, based
on excellent research, initiate the process of bringing credible
projects and products to the market. This, in the DFG's view, is what
Axel Haverich does outstandingly well: "Professor Haverich is a surgeon
and scientist recognised the world over with outstanding publications
and patents, who at his clinic promotes an extraordinarily technology-
and innovation-friendly climate," emphasised DFG President Professor
Haverich stands for the combination of research and clinical
practice at the highest level, continued Kleiner, and is moreover
committed in many different ways to scientific self-governance, most of
all in the DFG Senate, of which he was a member from 2001 to 2007, and
in the Senate Commission for Clinical Research.
But the nomination for the Future Prize is not only a distinction
for Haverich himself, but also an affirmation of the Leibniz Prize,
emphasised the DFG President. The prize, which has been awarded since
1986, brings its winners not only worldwide renown and large prize
money, but also the freedom to use this money for independent research
projects of their choice with a minimum of red tape. Six Leibniz
recipients later went on to receive the Nobel Prize. "These heart
valves that grow with the patient are impressive evidence for the
forward-looking way in which this freedom can be used," Kleiner said.
With his pioneering development Haverich certainly has a good chance of
success in the final selection at the beginning of December: "The
Future Prize would be a well-deserved accolade for his outstanding
Source : Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. October 2008.
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