Prof. Behl’s research looks into pathomechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s

March 2017 Prof. Dr. Christian Behl

Prof. Behl’s research looks into pathomechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s

 

The BINDER Innovation Prize has been awarded annually since 1998 to scientists working in the field of basic cell biology research by the German Society for Cell Biology (DGZ). The award, which includes prize money of 4,000 euros underwritten by BINDER, is handed out during the annual DGZ Spring Meetings.

 

Prof. Christian Behl, Director of the Institute for Pathobiochemistry at the University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, was awarded the BINDER Innovation Prize back in 2011 for his research project looking into pathomechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. This research was based on the premise that we can only understand the pathomechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases, for which age is the main risk factor, once we understand the difference between young and old cells, or, more precisely, their biochemical and molecular processes. By comparing proteostasis in young and old fibroblasts and nerve cells, the research team uncovered a switch from the proteasome system to autophagy in the protein degradation process. These findings later led to a new macroautophagy pathway being described for the first time.

The basis of this research has been consolidated over the past few years and developed into a general concept. The biochemistry of aging is being studied at many different institutes, with the ultimate aim of developing treatments for age-related diseases. In Prof. Behl’s lab, the concept was extended to other molecules and the autophagy pathway mentioned before – BAG3-mediated selective macroautophagy – looked into in detail.

 

Over the past few years, one of Prof. Behl’s main focuses has been on his involvement in the first dedicated research group in Germany to work on selective autophagy, for which he is the Vice-Spokesperson.Prof. Behl lists finding out the significance of oxidative stress in pathomechanisms related to Alzheimer’s during his time as a postdoctoral researcher in San Diego and as Head of a Junior Researcher Group at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich among the most significant successes in his career to date. The Moosmann & Behl hypothesis on the side-effect profile of statins has since made its way into biochemistry textbooks. He considers the description of BAG3-mediated selective macroautophagy as an intracellular pathway for bulk protein degradation to be just as important.

His team is currently conducting research to understand BAG3-mediated selective macroautophagy further, with a focus on regulating it as well as identifying and characterizing further factors of proteostasis. “The aim of our research is to develop an in-depth understanding of the mechanisms of proteostasis, in particular autophagy, in the specific, complicated architecture of the nerve cell, in order to help further understanding of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases,” explains Prof. Behl.

Christian Behl studied Biology at the Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg between 1982 and 1988, before going on to complete his PhD in Neurobiology in 1991. After a posting as a postdoctoral researcher in San Diego in the USA, he became Head of a Junior Researcher Group at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich. In 1999, he qualified as a lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Since 2002, Prof. Behl has been the Chair of the Department of Pathobiochemistry at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

 

It is important for scientists to continually take on different positions to allow them to develop their personal profile. For me, however, the defining period was the time I spent at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich with the Director at the time, Florian Holsboer, as my mentor

explains Prof. Behl.

The prize money was invested into the research network and used to develop it further, whilst the award had the added benefit of raising awareness of his research work.