Prof. Thomas Sommer, interim scientific director of the MDC, praised her outstanding research work, for which she received the Leibniz Prize, the most important research prize in Germany in 2002. In his laudatory address, Prof. Sommer said, “Carmen Birchmeier-Kohler has strongly influenced the MDC and contributed to its integral role in the science scene in Berlin.
Professor Birchmeier-Kohler’s main research interests center on mechanisms of mammalian embryo and organ development, which when out of control can lead to abnormalities in the nervous system, in skeletal muscle and heart disease and in cancer. Using so-called „knock-out“ mice – in these animals specific genes are selectively inactivated – she and her research team were able to elucidate the roles played by various growth factors and their receptors as well as the transcription factors they control.
Education and training in Germany, Switzerland and the U.S.
Carmen Birchmeier-Kohler was born on July 6, 1955 in Waldshut near the border to Switzerland. From 1974 to 1979 she studied chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Konstanz, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. After completing her doctorate in 1984 under the supervision of the molecular biologist Prof. Max Birnstiel at the University of Zurich, she became a postdoc at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) on Long Island, New York, in the laboratory of the geneticist Prof. Michael Wigler, a pioneer in oncogene research. In Cold Spring Harbor she discovered two of these genes that give rise to cancer when mutated. Prof. Wigler came to Berlin to the birthday symposium and gave a lecture on methods for the early detection of DNA mutations that can lead to cancer and autism.
After only two years as a postdoc, Carmen Birchmeier-Kohler was appointed staff scientist at CSH, and three years later, in 1989, she became head of an independent young investigator group at the Max Delbrück Laboratory of the Max Planck Society in Cologne. In 1993 she received an offer to come to the newly founded MDC, and in 1995, 20 years ago, she came to Berlin-Buch as a research group leader.
Since 2002 she has also been full professor at the Medical Faculty of Freie Universität (FU) Berlin, now Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. In addition, she is a board member of the NeuroCure Cluster of Excellence, which is established at the Charité and focuses on neurosciences. It is funded within the framework of the Excellence Initiative by the federal and state governments. Professor Birchmeier-Kohler is also a deputy speaker of the Collaborative Research Center (SFB) 665 on developmental disturbances in the nervous system.
In addition to the Leibniz Prize in 2002, in 1989 Professor Birchmeier-Kohler received the Bennigsen Prize of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia. In 2002 she was elected member of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and in 2012 member of the Academia Europaea.
Wide variety of topics
The wide variety of Professor Birchmeier-Kohler‘s research interests was reflected in the broad spectrum of presentations at her birthday symposium. Prof. Thomas Jessell of Columbia University in New York held the keynote lecture “Spinal Circuits for Skilled Movements”. He is considered the leading expert on the specification of neural circuits in the spinal cord. The motor nervous system and its circuits were the main theme of the presentation by Prof. Silvia Arber of the Biozentrum at the University of Basel.
Only in recent years have scientists known that also the adult brain has neural stem cells and thus has the potential to generate new neurons. In his lecture at the symposium, Prof. François Guillemot of the Francis Crick Institute in London described the signals and factors that regulate adult brain stem cells. Prof. Rhona Mirsky of University College in London reported about the ability of a specific type of Schwann cells to repair damaged neurons or their offshoots, the axons.
In his presentation, Prof. Christian Haass of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München discussed whether a specific protein, the enzyme beta-secretase, can be targeted and inactivated to develop a therapy for Alzheimer’s disease. The enzyme is involved in the formation of plaques in Alzheimer’s disease that cause the destruction of nerve cells. Prof. David Ginty of Harvard Medical School in Boston reported about the sense of touch. Prof. Gary Lewin of the MDC gave a presentation on the African naked mole-rat, which lives in colonies underground and feels no pain from acid.
The organizers of the MDC symposium were Prof. Gary Lewin, Prof. Fritz G. Rathjen, Prof. Erich Wanker and Dr. Michael Strehle. It was financially supported by the Collaborative Research Center SFB 665 as well as by the NeuroCure Cluster of Excellence.
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