unizeit Schriftzug

Infections, inflammations and cancer

The renowned infection biologist Thomas F. Meyer has been appointed senior professor at Kiel University, strengthening a highly promising field of research: infection oncology. The aim is to demonstrate that bacteria can be a contributing cause of cancer.

Thomas Meyer vor Tafel
© David Ausserhofer / Max-Planck-Institut für Infektionsbiologie

Der Infektionsbiologe Thomas F. Meyer forscht an der Schnittstelle von Infektion, Entzündung und Krebsentstehung.

Retirement? The option is unthinkable for Professor Thomas Meyer. "I am fascinated by research, and there are still many unanswered questions and hypotheses that I would like to explore." For the emeritus director of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology (MPIIB) in Berlin and now senior professor at Kiel University, there is no reason to leave it all behind him just as he is at the height of his research success. He recently received the Robert Koch Gold Medal in recognition of his outstanding scientific life's work. And in the spring, the European Research Council (ERC) committed to an Advanced Grant of €2.5 million. This highly coveted funding will allow him to systematically and fundamentally investigate the role of bacterial infections in the development of cancer. Research that is now to be carried out in Kiel.

In September, Professor Meyer began setting up his working group on "infection oncology". The decisive factor in going to Kiel for this was the thematic connection to the activities here in the area of inflammatory research in the Cluster of Excellence "Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation" (PMI). Chronic inflammations are effectively the interface between infection and cancer. They are said to play a central role in the multiplication of cancer cells that may initially have been caused by bacterial infections. And it is well known that bacterial infections can trigger such inflammatory processes. Professor Meyer: "I am highly optimistic that together we will be able to achieve important research results from these synergies right up to the development of new treatment approaches. In the Cluster of Excellence PMI at the Faculty of Medicine and the Natural Sciences, the university is offering me an excellent platform and discussion opportunities with outstanding personalities."

The infection biologist has been researching the link between infections and the development of cancer for over twenty years. The starting point was the question of how chronic infections damage the human cell and whether this damage can cause cancer. The research was inspired by work on the development of cancer as the result of viral infections. Since then, it has been proven, for instance, that subspecies of the human papillomavirus (HPV) contribute to the development of cervical cancer. The proof of this association was provided by Professor Harald zur Hausen, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine 2008 for his work.

The presumption that bacterial infections can also promote the development of cancer has been around for a long time. There is plenty of epidemiological documentation concerning the gastric bacterium Helicobacter pylori. The pathogen embeds itself in the gastric mucosa and can lead to permanent inflammation, resulting in stomach ulcers, bleeding and stomach cancer. "Just from the epidemiological point of view alone, there is no denying the belief that Helicobacter promotes stomach cancer. However, we still do not know just how Helicobacter pylori reprograms its host cells into cancer cells," explained Professor Meyer. His working group on infection oncology at Kiel University is to close this gap. "I am sure that the knowledge of this will help us to make decisive progress in the development of promising treatments and preventative measures. Other bacterial pathogens that are suspected of being fundamentally involved in the process of developing cancer will then become more of a focus in cancer research, i.e. in infection oncology."

The reason why bacteria have so far been underestimated by cancer research and so are difficult to pass as perpetrators is due to the fact that cancer often only develops over years, and decades after an infection. "One of the main challenges in my field of research is the determined proof of causality between bacterial infection and the development of cancer," explained the scientist, who had his first breakthrough in providing such evidence this year with a publication in Nature Medicine. In this paper, he analysed the action of certain gut bacteria that damage the human genome with a genotoxin. He found that a toxin formed by E. coli bacteria left a specific signature in the tumour cells of a particular colorectal cancer. "This is the first time that my team and I have been able to provide evidence of the causal link between bacterial infection and cancer in humans."

Keyword senior professorship

The senior professorship was introduced in order to continue to actively involve professors who are already retired or emeritus in research and teaching. It lasts for five years, and is awarded to selected, outstanding individuals with nationally and internationally acclaimed research achievements or particular teaching achievements. The CAU currently has (as of October 2020) five senior professors: Robert Alexy, Günther Deuschl, Gerhard Fouquet, Mojhib Latif and Thomas F. Meyer. (ne)