Over €12 million funding to advance autophagy research

Four years ago, Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) 1177 on selective autophagy was established under the leadership of Goethe University - now the German Research Foundation has given the green light for its further funding. A total of over € 12 million has been approved for the period up until 2023. Partners alongside Goethe University are the universities of Mainz, Munich, Tübingen and Freiburg, the Georg Speyer Haus and the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics in Frankfurt as well as the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) in Mainz.

Selective autophagy is part of the cell's waste disposal system. With its help, defective or potentially damaging cellular components are degraded and recycled. It plays a central role in maintaining cellular homeostasis and fulfils important functions in aging and developmental processes. Errors in this system contribute to cancer, neurodegenerative disorders and infections. The objective of the research alliance is a better understanding of autophagy at molecular and cellular level in order to be able in future to counteract imbalances in the system. CRC 1177 is the first consortium in Germany to tackle this important topic systematically.

This is very good news for Goethe University. Thanks to this CRC, Frankfurt has become a national hub for autophagy research over the past four years. Especially through the integration of new partners in Munich, Tübingen and Freiburg and at the MPI for Biophysics, it has been possible to substantially strengthen the existing partnership between Mainz (IMB/JGU) and Frankfurt (GSH/GU). We expect this research alliance to advance autophagy research significantly, which will help in the fight against many diseases."

Professor Birgitta Wolff, President of Goethe University

Autophagy is found from simple organisms, such as yeasts, up to humans. The underlying molecular mechanisms are always similar: Cellular components that need to be removed are recognized in a highly specific manner, enveloped by membranes and degraded. This is how, for example, aggregated proteins are destroyed that would otherwise cause severe damage and trigger cell death. This can especially be observed in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, where toxic protein aggregates accumulate which then promote the massive destruction of nerve cells. Apart from proteins, autophagy can also target defective cell organelles and pathogens for removal. The cell can reutilize the recovered material as building blocks for synthesizing new components, which is why autophagy is also an important survival strategy in times of need.

Autophagy is a very complex process which must be precisely regulated and is greatly dependent on the cellular context. Its analysis requires state-of-the-art technologies, the integration of a wide variety of data and close collaboration between researchers from different disciplines. "We will focus on novel concepts in autophagy research and its impact on major biological processes as well as pathogenesis and therapy of human diseases," explains Professor Ivan Dikic, CRC spokesperson and Director of the Institute of Biochemistry II at Goethe University. "Our vision includes close interactions between basic and translational research via centrally supported technology platforms."

The platforms with their ultramodern equipment are a key factor in the research alliance's success: Since 2016, over 20 scientific publications have been produced in cooperation with the proteomics platform alone. In the second funding period, centrally available technologies will be significantly extended to include modeling and simulation methods, genomic and chemical high-throughput screening, and imaging methods to quantify autophagy in model organisms. Another equally important matter within the consortium is support for early career researchers. To this end, the Research Training Group set up in the first funding period will be continued. "Training the next generation of autophagy researchers is a matter close to our hearts and for this reason we've planned a diverse and advanced training programme," said Dikic.

Participating in the CRC on the part of Goethe University - in addition to its faculties of Biological Sciences, Biochemistry, Chemistry and Pharmacy, and Medicine - is the Buchmann Institute for Molecular Life Sciences.

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