20 Years of Life Science Research at the IMP

bridges vol. 18, July 2008 / Noteworthy Information

by Heidemarie Hurtl

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There was a lot of kissing and hugging as former colleagues from around the world met once again, often for the first time in many years. On May 15-16, 2008, the Vienna-based Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) celebrated its 20th birthday. To mark the anniversary, the institute had organized a scientific conference at the Hofburg, the former imperial palace. Nearly 650 scientists came to exchange the latest results in biomedical research. Some 220 of them were alumni who had once studied and worked in the IMP's labs and had gone on to pursue their careers in other parts of the world.

It was impressive to find out what had become of the former PhD students and postdocs. Today most of them lead their own research groups or even entire departments, and many have accepted professorships at universities. IMP alumni are also found in managing positions at companies such as Boehringer Ingelheim, the main sponsor of the institute.


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Presentations and lectures at the conference were exclusively by former and current IMP researchers and by members of the scientific advisory board. At the opening ceremony, founding director Max Birnstiel recounted the IMP's pioneering years and his own personal role in setting up the institute. Closing remarks came from Gottfried Schatz, one of the intellectual fathers and a true mentor of the IMP. He delivered a passionate speech about the role of universities and of privately funded research, and pointed out what the IMP and universities could learn from each other.

Among those who offered their congratulations were the Mayor of Vienna Michael Häupl and Minister of Science Johannes Hahn. They described the history of the IMP as an unparalleled success story in Austrian research, noting how effectively it boosted the development of the local biotech community.

Originally founded as a joint venture between Boehringer Ingelheim and the California company Genentech, the institute has been committed to scientific excellence since its very

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IMP Night Lights: The IMP was founded with the intention of performing cutting-edge reserach in molecilar biology.

beginning. The intention of the founders was to perform cutting-edge research in molecular biology. The means by which this was to be achieved were straightforward: Create an attractive and intellectually stimulating environment, attract world-class scientists, and offer them the freedom to follow their curiosity.

The concept has clearly borne fruit. Based on scientific output, the IMP is one of the most successful research institutes in Austria. Around 1500 scientific papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals and 90 patents have been filed since the founding of the institute.

The 1988 opening of the IMP at its present site triggered a surge in development which continues to this day. Several university institutes moved in when a neighboring building was completed in 1992. Five years later, the enterprise Intercell was founded as the first commercial spin-off. This company, which develops synthetic vaccines, is today listed on the stock exchange. Further biotech companies followed, as well as a university of applied science and two research institutes of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. A visitor's lab and a nonprofit association provide interfaces with the general public. Known as the "Campus Vienna Biocenter," the site today is a dynamic center of biotechnical research and development.

The IMP is also developing. Although it was initially perceived primarily as a center for cancer research, the range of topics has continuously increased over time. Current research endeavors of the IMP focus on cell biology, developmental biology, neurobiology, and the molecular basis of diseases, including cancer.

One of the most important discoveries that came from the IMP was made with the help of baker's yeast. Using this simple organism, IMP director Kim Nasmyth identified a key mechanism in cell division. The British geneticist, who succeeded Max Birnstiel in 1997, identified the molecular mechanisms that ensure that genetic information is correctly distributed to the daughter cells at the right time when cells divide. This knowledge is vitally important for understanding many congenital diseases.

Also from the field of cell cycle research comes the discovery by Jan-Michael Peters of the central role of the enzyme Polo-like kinase 1 (Plk1) for cell division. So vital is Plk 1 that by blocking it one can disrupt cell division, resulting in cell death. If this cell happens to be a cancer cell then killing it means you may have a therapy at hand. Consequently, an inhibitor for Plk 1 was sought and found and is already undergoing clinical tests.

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IMP's Next Challenge: Training the next scientific genertion.

Other significant discoveries concern the epigenetic code. This relates to information within the cell not simply as encoded by DNA but rather by the way it is modified or expressed. Senior Scientist Thomas Jenuwein, who is about to move to Freiburg to take up the position as Max Planck Director, broke new ground in this field.

IMP groups are also active in stem cell research. Meinrad Busslinger, a senior scientist with a long "IMP history," was able to demonstrate that differentiated blood cells can be retransformed into precursor cells by deactivating a specific gene.

The numerous scientific discoveries have also been reflected in a string of awards. Starting in 1996 when the Wittgenstein Prize, Austria's most prestigious award for research, was first presented, four have gone to IMP scientists.

Among the success factors that have since become exemplary for other institutes are lean administration, centrally organized scientific service facilities, and in particular limited contracts for the researchers, providing a continuous supply of new ideas and projects. A scientific advisory board meeting annually in Vienna provides regular evaluation of the research. The eight members include two representatives from Boehringer Ingelheim, the remaining members being independent experts, including the occasional Nobel Prize winner.

Training the next scientific generation is a central issue at the IMP. For 15 years postgraduates from around the world have been trained in an international PhD program carried out in cooperation with universities. The IMP also took on a pioneering role in Europe with the introduction of the so-called "IMP Fellowship" by its present director Barry Dickson. This program allows young, talented scientists to take responsibility for a lab shortly after receiving their doctorate and to run an independent research project. Currently, the American Peggy Stolt-Bergner is the sole holder of such a position; she will be joined this autumn by David Keays, researching how honeybees orient themselves using the Earth's magnetic field. Although there will be no beehives at the IMP, some staff are already looking forward to homemade honey.

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The author, Heidemarie Hurtl, joined the IMP in 1993 and has been handling the institute’s public affairs since then. Currently, she is also responsible for media relations at IMBA, the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

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