Christian Kurts: The immunologist with a Plan B
Christian Kurts knows that it’s a good idea to have a few aces up your sleeve, and not just from his research into the immune system. He chooses his weapons precisely according to whether he is confronted with bacteria, viruses, or tumours. The underlying mechanism of the immune system was recently elucidated by Kurts’ team of researchers at the Institute for Molecular Medicine and Experimental Immunology at the University of Bonn. Leibniz prize winner Kurts has been Director of the Institute since 2009. The career of the 47 year-old only appears straightforward at first glance; time and again he has had to turn to Plan B to make things work out, and no small amount of the time this has worked out for the better.
It could have been a disaster. In 1995, after graduating from Göttingen University and several years of training as an internist and nephrologist at the Hannover Medical School, Christian Kurts decided to go to Melbourne to research the function of T-cell-mediated immune system responses in the kidneys. He would be working under Jacques Miller, famous for discovering T-cells. Kurts describes his time down under as "some of the best times of my life". He greatly appreciated the Australians’ relaxed yet meticulous style, as well as the gorgeous natural beauty of the continent. But this relaxation did not initially transfer to the laboratory, where his experiments on kidneys that had been damaged by the immune system ended in failure. "It wasn’t until years later in Germany that I was able to answer the questions that we were tackling back then," he recalls.
Kurts grew up in the village of Büddenstedt near Helmstedt at the eastern border of Lower Saxony, just 500 metres from the Inner-German border. "As a student, I had very little contact with research and the academic world," he says. He eventually decided to study physics in Göttingen, but gave it up in favour of medical studies after just a few semesters. However, he doesn’t consider the time wasted. "The mathematical-scientific way of thinking that is often missing somewhat in the life sciences is still paying dividends for me today."
Fundamental discovery in Australia
It is possible that the short stint at physics also lent the scientist an eye for alternatives. The young researcher in Australia quickly decided on a backup plan: he would research the activation of killer T-cells that attack and destroy diseased cells in the body. This led him to a breakthrough: Kurts discovered that dendritic cells are responsible for raising the alarm to the killer T-cells. The underlying mechanism, which he and his Australian colleagues named 'cross-presentation', is of fundamental importance for the immune system response against viruses, tumours, as well as for the process of vaccination. It also can help prevent the development of autoimmune disorders such as diabetes mellitus.
This was an unexpected result – too unexpected for some colleagues. "At the time, the specialised community was convinced that dendritic cells couldn’t to any extent be involved in this." Although Kurts’s evidence was watertight, the prevailing dogma fell apart only gradually. "In fact, upon returning to Germany I had difficulty finding institutions that would let me continue working on cross-presentation." A research proposal for follow-up work in Hannover was rejected. "In hindsight it was very lucky, because it allowed me to spend a third year in Melbourne with Australian support, which ended up being the most successful," says Kurts. After this he applied to the Basel Institute for Immunology, at the time the European Mecca of immunology. However, he was told already during the interview that they didn’t believe in cross-presentation, and turned him down just a few weeks before the planned start of work. "It was with the case of Basel that it became clear once and for all that it is always a good idea to have a plan B."
And so Kurts returned to the university clinic in Hannover, where he received his degree and eventually became a specialist in internal medicine. The clinical career was an alternative, "in case the research didn’t work out". With the funding secured for a junior research group, Kurts next went from North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) onwards to Aachen. There, the mice he was using for his research all died from a hepatitis infection, and two years of work was lost. "It was a severe setback," he recalls. However, at the same time Percy Knolle – a good colleague of Kurts’s – became Director of the Institute for Molecular Medicine and Experimental Immunology (IMMEI) in Bonn, where he had begun to establish immunology as a research focus for the medical faculty. Knolle put in place a modern department research structure based on the US-American model in which workgroup directors enjoy an equal say in decision-making, and recommended that Kurts apply for exactly this kind of position. Kurts found the innovative concept extremely compelling, and applied for the position. Nevertheless – keeping to type – he kept a second route open: the USA. He had received an offer from the La Jolla Institute in California, leading to a three-month visit "to see how the Americans work, and to stay if Bonn turned me down". But Bonn did indeed want him in their ranks.
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The Institute for Molecular Medicine and Experimental Immunology (IMMEI) is internationally renowned for its research into the molecular and cellular mechanisms that guide the triggering of immune system responses.
New concepts in Bonn
At IMMEI he is particularly inspired by the direct contact with clinical doctors, who bring their experiences from their everyday medical work to the immunologists to investigate. "We build bridges between the clinic and research," he says. Over the past years, the system has proven itself time and again with a cascade of discoveries. Researchers from Kurts’ institute have shone a light on the cellular-biological mechanisms of cross-presentation and uncovered clues the role of the immune system in post-operative intestinal paralysis and in age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of vision loss in old age.
None of this has remained a secret, and in 2009 alone Kurts has enjoyed three offers for chaired professorships, both nationally and internationally. In order to keep him in Bonn, the NRW state government has funded a new 'ad personam' professorship at the University of Bonn Hospital. What is more, his boss Percy Knolle, who in the meantime has become a close personal friend, relinquished a portion of his own institute so that they can both continue working together in Bonn as co-directors of what is now called the Institute for Molecular Medicine and Experimental Immunology. This sort of esprit de corps isn’t to be taken for granted in the highly competitive world of elite science. In the meantime, the IMMEI has become one of the most powerful immunological research institutes in the world, although it is somewhat small with regard to its basic equipment. "We spend most of our time writing applications for research funding, otherwise we would have less than 10 instead of more than 70 employees," Kurts says.
Despite this, the working conditions for immunologists in Bonn is very good at this time. "In Bonn we have many internationally renowned immunologists on location, gained through targeted appointment policies, the majority of which were conceived by Prof. Knolle," Kurts says. And should the institute in Bonn also manage to become an excellence cluster – the decision will be made in June 2012 – then Bonn will become a 'centre of immunological research in Germany'.
Kurts still has much planned for the future, including clarifying the molecular mechanisms of cross-presentation to the extent that targeted vaccines can actually be developed. Or to explain how the immune systems contributes to epilepsy, ocular tumours, kidney inflammation, and anaesthesia complications. "There is such an incredible amount to do," he says. He also describes his work as a hobby. When he’s not working he especially enjoys travelling, reading, listening to music and jogging. But the research remains the focal point of his life. And in this respect, Kurts is currently in exactly the right location.
The Bonners may find the 'Prussian' (which he also calls himself) somewhat stolid. On the other hand, he has learned to love the local idiosyncrasies, for instance the ‘Rhenish solution’ in which conflicts are solved pragmatically and "positively for all parties" through the broad interpretation of regulations. "I really like it here. I hope that the political, financial, and locational framework conditions don’t worsen for the scientists in Bonn." And if they do? "Then it will be time for the Plan B again."
Author: Christoph Mayerl