Körber Prize to ETH Zurich Professor Seeberger

April 26, 2007

This press release is also available in German.

The Körber Prize, one of the most prestigious German awards in science, recognizes European scientists for applied and pioneering research. This year's award honors chemist Peter Seeberger for his groundbreaking research in the synthesis of complex sugars. The Körber Foundation, located in Hamburg, Germany, decided to honor Professor Seeberger for the development of an instrument that automatically synthesizes carbohydrates, thereby facilitating the production of novel synthetic sugar-based vaccines.

Professor Seeberger sees the award as confirmation of "the excellent work carried out by my team members. It is also an incentive to [other] researchers at the university to work on the very real problems of developing countries, to help deal with the most important health issues concerning the poor around the world."

The sugar specialist

Working at the crossroads of chemistry and biology, Professor Seeberger focuses on the so-called oligosaccharides. Each cell in the body is surrounded by an extra-cellular matrix, the glycans, made up of polysaccharide chains and branched sugars. Cells use the glycans to recognize one another and to exchange signalling molecules. As well, bacteria, viruses and fungi use the glycans to locate specific cells in the body in order to attack them: cancer-producing helicobacter bacteria attach themselves to the glycans in the gastric mucous membrane; flu viruses bind to the glycans on the lungs.

Vaccine to come

In order to develop a carbohydrate-based vaccine, researchers must first determine which glycans are typical for the disease of interest. These glycans are extracted, or produced chemically, then connected to a harmless protein. This conjugate vaccine is injected into the recipient. The immune system develops antibodies to these glycans, which will provide protection when a natural pathogen later enters the body.

Using the automated oligosaccharide synthesizer, known as the 'sugar ma-chine', that he developed, Professor Seeberger and his colleagues have succeeded not only in chemically producing glycans of pathogens, but also in developing vaccine candidates against malaria, leishmaniasis, aids, anthrax and tuberculosis.

In the past, producing a single complex sugar meant months or years of laboratory work. With the 'sugar machine', production time is reduced to less than one day, thus significantly speeding up basic research, and the development of new diagnostic tools and drugs. The malaria vaccine candidate is most advanced of the vaccines currently being tested. Animals tests have demonstrated the vac-ine's effectiveness. First tests on humans will be carried out in 2008.

ETH Zurich/Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

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