Today the Finnish scientist Ari Helenius has received the Otto-Warburg-Medal of the German Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (GBM). The medal is considered the highest German honor for biochemists and molecular biologists.
Helenius explored how viruses change the programming of their host cells to their own benefit. In doing so he also discovered basic principles of biological “quality control” for the folding and assembly of protein molecules. QIAGEN, leading provider of sample and assay technologies, exclusively sponsors the Otto-Warburg-Medal with a grant of 25 000 Euros. Helenius received the award today in Mosbach, Germany.
Viruses proliferate by entering living cells and replicating there – generally to the disadvantage of the infected cell. Professor Ari Helenius explored the molecular processes of how influenza viruses manipulate their host cells, in particular by studying the synthesis and folding of Hemagglutinin. This protein molecule is being built into the virus membrane.
Helenius discovered that the attacked cell not only produces more Hemagglutinin and transports it to the membrane surface – it also checks it with a quality control system, which is actually in place for normal host cell proteins. Only functional proteins that are folded accurately and have the right structure will be processed by this biochemical “sorting -machine”.
Special enzymes recognize misfolded proteins and then a sugar molecule is added as an attachment to them. Proteins having this marker cannot leave the endoplasmic reticulum, the location where they have been assembled. This testing of newly synthesized proteins is of vital importance: a faulty molecular quality control can be the cause for different diseases like cystic fibrosis and diabetes. The concepts developed by Ari Helenius are now textbook knowledge.
“Ari Helenius strongly influenced the cell biological research over decades and developed innovative experimental approaches,” says Prof. Nikolaus Pfanner, president of the GBM. „The far ranging concepts he developed based on these discoveries are commonly accepted today. A better understanding of viral infections and cellular quality control established by his work could disclose new therapeutic options in medicine in the near future.”
“We are excited to see the Otto-Warburg-Medal awarded to Ari Helenius, a pioneer of science whose findings have brought substantial advance in several disciplines,” says Dr. Thomas Schweins, Vice President Marketing and Strategy at QIAGEN. „As a provider of a multitude of solutions for sample preparation and analysis of DNA, RNA and proteins we are delighted that we can support Ari Helenius with this year’s award and in his future research.”