This year, top figures from science, business, politics, media and civil society came together again at the Falling Walls Science Summit to talk about scientific breakthroughs and the role of science in combating the biggest challenges of our time. This also applies to Ferenc Krauss, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics this year for establishing attosecond physics, which allows new insights into the behavior of electrons. and neuroscientist Thomas Gasser, who this year received the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for his important research on genetic risk factors for Parkinson’s disease.
Even before they both took the stage, moderator Jurgen Melnyk, president of the Falling Walls Foundation, a non-profit organization that has organized this popular science event every year since 2009 (November 7-9) to celebrate the fall of the world, said. The Berlin Wall announces some good news: While having breakfast together, Kraus and Gasser decide to bring their research together to help people with Parkinson’s disease and thus use science to meet today’s challenges. The two award-winning researchers agree that “science plays a major role in solving humanity’s problems,” Krauss said. “Without them, it doesn’t work at all,” Gasser says.
How are the fall of the Berlin Wall and Parkinson’s disease related?
Gasser has his own memories of the day the wall came down: That was when he received his first Parkinson’s patient. The researcher says he could never choose between biochemistry and medicine, hence he studied the latter, but he never lost sight of biochemistry. Today he is head of the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research at the University of Tübingen. He explains that in Parkinson’s disease, some neurons in the brain that produce dopamine are destroyed. Dopamine deficiency causes movement disorders and can also lead to dementia.
Although the disease had not previously been classified as a genetic disease, Gasser and his team discovered mutations in the LRRK2 and GBA1 genes that increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease and can also cause the disease. For this reason, Gasser received this year’s Life Sciences Breakthrough Award. Its value is three million US dollars, and it is the most valuable scientific award in the world.
Gasser, who has also led clinical research at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) for ten years, will continue to present his pioneering findings in Berlin: the discovered mutation is not only responsible for the 10% hereditary form of Parkinson’s disease, but also for the “sporadic” version. “Ninety percent more common than the fastest growing neurological disease in the world.
Gasser says the primitive phase is essential for future treatment. According to him, this initial stage of the disease is the deciding factor: “The window of opportunity – it can be used to slow down and delay the onset of Parkinson’s disease so much, perhaps by ten to twenty years, that patients no longer have the disease.” beginning.”
A world without Parkinson’s disease?
Gasser does not believe Parkinson’s disease will ever be curable. Because “if the disease spreads, it means a lot has been broken,” he explains. He is more confident that it can be prevented. The recipe for this: combining diverse knowledge from genetics with that of prophase. That’s why he might use a method developed by physicist Ferenc Kraus.
Gasser has worked with biologists before, but never with anyone in a field as supposedly different as physics. “It was really a surprise today, and it was the first time I thought: This could really work,” the doctor said happily.
Kraus is also excited about her new idea: “The fact that we can build a team, work together, let our ideas cross-pollinate, get excited about something and move forward,” he finds the most beautiful aspect of the research.
Although it’s important to make decisions collectively, it’s also important, according to Kraus, not to rush. Therefore, his advice for successful research is: “Set the goals clearly, ideally find the right question, the right questions, you are the compass and then follow them very consistently and with discipline.”
This is not always easy, even for a Nobel laureate, who headed the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Physics for twenty years. After he and his team had conducted fundamental research for many years, using, among other things, ultrafast pulses of light to study the motion of electrons in real time – for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics this year – the scientists themselves asked the question: “Do we want to continue… Conduct basic research or use the results for practical medical applications?
His team chose the latter option, even if it was not intended to diminish the importance of basic research, according to Krosz. “We don’t just want to collect knowledge, but we also want to produce something that can directly benefit people,” Kraus says.
Wanting more confidence in science
This is also the great hope of the joint project with Gasser. But both see not only opportunities, but also difficulties. Above all: access to data. “It’s very important for research,” Kraus says.
“Germany is not particularly good at this,” says neuroscientist Gasser. According to both scientists, this is also the reason why not many clinical studies have been conducted in Germany. Although data can also be anonymized in two stages in this country, centralized collection of health data represents a double benefit: optimal treatment as well as further development of medicine, Kraus says. He makes a big appeal to politicians: “Finally, address this!”
Jacir sees another difficulty with the fearful mindset: “Challenges are not viewed as opportunities.” He cites massive inequality in the world as a reason for this. “Science is on the side of the powerful, and if you see yourself on the other side, you don’t feel supported by scientists and don’t believe they are thinking on your behalf,” he explains.
Rather, most people fear that new scientific findings will force them to change something they do not want to change in their lives. “For example, in light of the climate crisis, say goodbye to private car traffic,” says Gasser. “How beautiful the world would be without all the metal boxes.” But it is not perceived that way. Instead, many people continue to lose faith in science.
Krausz sees it the same way. “In science, everything starts with new discoveries and the question arises about what we should do with them,” the physicist said. One of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenges of our time makes this abundantly clear: the climate crisis. There are still many who don’t really want to believe that it was made by humans.
“Science has the crucial task of convincing skeptics, unfortunately sometimes at a very high level, that the facts are there and that they leave absolutely no room for interpretation,” Krauss says. But since life is not always just about science, it reaches its limits here. Prize winners Kraus and Gasser deeply regret this. They want a better future: more trust in science and less fear of facts.
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