Preventing the spread of diseases – Merck presents the "Futre Insight Prize"

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US Systems Biologist and Immunologist Receive the First "Futre Insight Prize" from Darmstadt-based Pharmaceuticals Company Merck

The Ebola virus quickly spread after the first infection in a village in Guinea, West Africa, in the spring of 2014. After a few months, the epidemic had reached neighboring countries, Liberia and Nigeria. Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal in August. By the time the epidemic had ended in early 2016, more than 10,000 people had died by that time and nearly 30,000 had contracted the disease. It was sometimes thought that infectious diseases – formerly the leading cause of death, even in our latitudes – would quickly lose their terror. It was at this time, as more and more vaccines were being developed and antibiotics were being discovered. But hope was lost.

Pandemics, epidemics that not only spread in one country, but even in other continents, are one of the great challenges of medicine, especially today, because you can cross from one country to another. great distances in a few hours by plane. Rapid identification of pathogens, healing of patients, elimination of spread and prevention of a pandemic after the onset of an infectious disease – this is what the chemical and pharmaceutical company Merck launched the first "Future Insight Prize".

Yesterday, the first two winners were honored at the Innovation Center of the parent factory in Darmstadt. It is Pardis Sabeti, Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard University and Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Cambridge and James Crowe, Director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville . The prize was awarded to them for their research work, which could lay the foundation for the subsequent achievement of a "protector of the pandemic" as stated in the rationale for the selection of laureates. Both were selected by an independent jury of 40 members. The "Future Insight Prize" is endowed with a million euros (higher than the Nobel Prize of 870,000 euros) and will be shared equally with the institutes of two renowned scientists, where it will be invested in further research.

Pardis Sabeti witnessed the catastrophic situation in West Africa when Ebola fever hit the area. In her research on the viral genome, she noted how quickly changes in the genome of the pathogen could be detected. A high mutation rate – typical of so-called RNA viruses, including Ebola – complicates treatment. Sabeti's approach is to develop a genetic technology that can detect and treat the widest possible range of infectious diseases. And above all, this tool should not only detect and attack known viruses, but also be applicable to new ones.

James Crowe is primarily interested in viral immunology and antibodies. Its objective is to decipher important mechanisms of the immune response and to develop new treatments and vaccines on this basis. In particular, he focuses on human monoclonal antibodies that would be effective against Ebola, Dengue, Zika and Marburg viruses. Crowe is working on a new technology that should allow in a few weeks to produce a neutralizing antibody against threatening viruses. In addition, his laboratory is developing a range of antibody candidates against various types of potentially emerging viruses belonging to known virus families. Financial support from the prize money will greatly accelerate development, says the researcher.

The work of Sabeti and Crowe demonstrates that "science can be a force that does good and can make a significant and lasting contribution to the progress of society". said Stefan Oschmannn, CEO of Merck. He considers protection against pandemics to be extremely urgent: because it strikes the most vulnerable people, the population of poor countries, because heat waves and floods will increase due to climate change and that many Pathogens will create good conditions due to globalization and viruses circumnavigating the world and especially because you have to fear terror with biological weapons. Developing a protector against the pandemic is therefore "a must".

This is not the only imperative: in the coming years, the Future Insight Prize will have to face other major problems, as well as solutions for antibiotic resistance, food for the world population and products able to fix CO2. As Merck points out, none of the winning projects would be associated with any entrepreneurial area. We consider that "our responsibility as a technology company" is to work together to bring these problems under control, Oschmann explained. Other topics will be added as the world's oldest pharmaceutical and chemical company, founded in 1668, wishes to award the "Future Insight Prize" each year over the next 35 years.