She is a biochemist, physician and since January 2020 also President of the German Research Foundation (DFG). Prof. Dr. Katja Becker has dedicated her life as a researcher to one goal in particular: to develop new drugs and diagnostics against poverty-associated and neglected infectious diseases. Prior to that, she was mainly active as coordinator of the LOEWE Centre DRUID. In the interview, the scientist talks about her motivation, her scientific successes and why Central Hessen is a good research location.
Why have you decided to dedicate your life to research on poverty-related and neglected diseases?
Prof. Katja Becker: All my life I have been committed to the interests of people who do not belong to the privileged groups in our world. I always wanted to become a doctor and therefore I studied medicine at the University of Heidelberg. And even as a student I was already travelling a lot, for example to the Friendship Islands and with the Flying Doctors Service in Australia. I then had the opportunity to do my doctoral thesis in the field of malaria research and worked in clinics in Ghana and Nigeria. As I got to know the people in these countries better, I soon realized that I would like to dedicate myself even more to this topic. So there were really only two possibilities for me: either to get involved locally, for example in a clinic in Africa, or to go into science and do research on infectious diseases. When I was offered a postdoctoral position in biochemistry in Heidelberg, it paved the way for me to enter science. And I simply enjoy research, especially the exchange with many people.
What would you describe as the most important research results in your scientific career?
Prof. Katja Becker: In principle, I have pursued three major lines of research. The basic motive underlying it all is cellular metabolism and the balance between oxidative stress and antioxidant capacity. Oxidative stress generates oxygen radicals that permanently affect our body and our cells. In contrast, cells have established a whole range of antioxidative protective mechanisms. If this balance is disturbed, very sensitive areas of fast-growing and rapidly dividing cells such as tumour cells or infectious agents can be hit. This opens new avenues for the development of drugs against cancer or infectious agents. On the one hand, we were able to characterize the metabolism very well in the model organism Drosophila melanogaster, the fruit fly, and identify a key point of the redox metabolism there. The second result, which I am particularly pleased about, is the fundamental characterisation of the redox metabolism of the malaria parasites. And the third result is actually based on a study we conducted in Ghana and Nigeria with malnourished children. We were able to show that these children, who develop edema everywhere, have a very greatly reduced antioxidant capacity. If you give these children the important antioxidant molecule glutathione, you can save their lives.
What advantages does the Central Hessen region offer for your research?
Prof. Katja Becker: In order to develop new drugs, a whole arsenal of methods from cell culture to molecular biology and the synthesis of new active ingredients is required. All of these skills must be closely interlinked in order for the entire development chain to function efficiently. In addition, there is the translational aspect: If one wants to enter the clinical phase of drug testing, ideally one needs partners from industry who are interested in the topic. We find this combination here in the Hessen region. An important factor is also the interest and commitment of politicians here in Hessen for this topic. In addition, the region is a strong business location and an important location for the pharmaceutical industry. In the LOEWE Center DRUID, for example, we have a consortium of 25 working groups at various locations in Giessen, Marburg, Frankfurt and Langen.
What is the research focus of the LOEWE Center DRUID?
Prof. Katja Becker: We mainly work on tropical malaria and the malaria pathogen Plasmodium falciparum. About half a million people still die from malaria every year worldwide, almost exclusively children under the age of five. We are trying to characterize new target molecules for drug development in the malaria pathogen. For example, we are clarifying the three-dimensional structure of enzymes that are essential for the survival of the parasite in order to develop very specific inhibitors. We want to target one of the parasite’s Achilles‘ tendons. This is what is meant by rational drug development.
What are the most important aspects for such projects to be successful in the future?
Prof. Katja Becker: I hope that we can continue to expand our networks both nationally and internationally. We are currently facing very large and complex global challenges, such as climate change and migration flows. These can actually only be addressed in an international or global context. If you think of the neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), which we are working on in the LOEWE Center DRUID, these diseases affect more than one billion people around the world. This is simply a global situation that is coming, and we have to be very, very well prepared for it. The task of scientists in this context is to carry out studies, deliver results and advise policy makers. Therefore, I hope that we will be able to identify and characterize many new drug targets and thereby bring our projects to market and ultimately benefit patients. In order to ensure the long-term nature of such projects, we need research funds, on the one hand, and very good young scientists, on the other. Only through the close networking of politics, business and science and through cooperation will we be able to solve the global problems we are currently facing.
As an addition to this interview, you can also read this article.