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Prof. Dr. Maxim Berezovski

The biochemist Prof. Dr. Maxim Berezovski of the University of Ottawa receives the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation - continuing his research on so-called "synthetic antibodies" at the FAU. The goal is to improve the treatment of autoimmune diseases. Together with Prof. Dr. med. Alexander Steinkasserer, Department of Skin and Venereal Diseases and Head of Immunomodulatory Department, Prof. Berezovski met FAU President Prof. Dr. med. Joachim Hornegger (from left to right). (Image: FAU /Luisa Macharowsky)

Winner of the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award and visiting researcher at the Department of Immune Modulation at Universitätsklinikum Erlangen

Biochemist Prof. Dr. Maxim Berezovski has received the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and is using the award to continue his research on so-called ‘synthetic antibodies’ at FAU.

Prof. Berezovski is full professor at the Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of Ottawa, where he is director of the Bioanalytical and Molecular Interaction Laboratory, the Cellular Imaging and Cytometry Facility, and the John L. Holmes Mass Spectrometry Facility. Prof. Berezovski completed his Master’s degree in biochemistry from Novosibirsk State University, Russia in 1994. He subsequently worked for six years as managing director of a pharmaceutical company in Russia before completing a doctoral degree in bioanalytical chemistry at York University in Canada.

His research focuses on improving the understanding of molecular processes in cancer and immune disorders. In his projects, he investigates fundamental biomolecular interactions and uses this knowledge to develop new biosensors and bioanalytical methods.

FAU is a well-known innovator. It´s the number one in Germany and number two in Europe. Prof. Dr. Steinkasserer and his lab are a leader in immunology and dendritic cell research.

Prof. Dr. Berezovski, your research at FAU focuses on so-called synthetic antibodies. What are those and what exactly sparked your interest in their research?

These synthetic antibodies are called aptamers. Aptamers are single-stranded DNA and RNA molecules, which carry the blueprint for their own synthesis in their primary sequence. They caused my interest, because aptamers can be selected to any targets such as small organic or inorganic molecules, toxins, proteins, viruses, bacteria, cancer or immune cells by a very smart method called SELEX or in vitro evolution, i.e. the creation of molecules in a lab tube, without using any animals. When a student in my laboratory develops an aptamer, he or she has a right to give his or her own name, usually first and last name initials, to the aptamer as a first inventor of the molecule.

Could you give us a short description of your research project at FAU?

Together with Prof. Dr. Steinkasserer, Department of Skin and Venereal Diseases and Head of Immunomodulatory Department, and Dr. Lechmann, Research Group Leader at the Immune Regulatory Department of the dermatological clinic in Erlangen, we are developing DNA aptamers to CD83, an important protein in immunology and dendritic cell biology. These aptamers will bind tightly to the protein and inhibit its activity. Deactivation of CD83 by the aptamers will decrease the tolerance of the immune system to many human cancers and the treat of the disease. Our project is important to make new medications for cancer immunotherapy.

What do you and Prof. Dr. Steinkasserer, your host at FAU, hope to achieve with your research?

There are no synthetic antibodies or aptamers available to date that can control regulatory T cells, also called Tregs. Tregs regulate our immune system and prevent it from attacking cancer cells in cancer patients. Our research objective is to develop specific neutralising DNA aptamers for CD83, decrease the generation of Treg cells, and stimulate the immune system to fight with cancer.

What significance does your research have for society?

I am just trying to find a new solution to eliminate cancer, one of the most deadly diseases in the world.

I advise my students to do science every day to become a good scientist.

What were your reasons for choosing FAU as your host institution for a research stay abroad?

I have known Prof. Dr. Steinkasserer and Dr. Lechmann since 2005 year as excellent scientists and good friends. I worked together with Dr. Lechmann as a postdoctoral fellow in the same laboratory of Prof. Tak W. Mak in Toronto, Canada. We were the first researchers who developed a new technology – Aptamer-facilitated Biomarker Discovery, AptaBiD, and discovered novel aptamers to dendritic cells. It was logical for me to come to FAU for my Humboldt foundation sponsored research stay and continue our exiting work on aptamers with Prof. Dr. Steinkasserer and Dr. Lechmann.

How well known is FAU internationally in your field of research?

FAU is a well-known innovator. It´s the number one in Germany and number two in Europe. Prof. Dr. Steinkasserer and his lab are a leader in immunology and dendritic cell research.

How do you find the interaction between researchers at FAU?

The warm welcoming from FAU President Prof. Dr. Joachim Hornegger and the Office for International Affairs pleased me. They helped me a lot at the beginning of my stay in Erlangen. I have met several researchers at FAU and we started to think about new research ideas and projects.

What motivates you to continue researching?

I have a personal motivation to continue research and find new treatments for metastatic cancer. My father passed away because of these circulating tumor cells. He had three operations. After three or four years, he had a new tumor after the old tumor was removed. Eventually he got a tumor in the brain. And that was it.

Today I am searching for new anti-tumor aptamers. I called them Aptamer-based Personalized Digital Drugs. Such tumor specific aptamers can be selected relatively fast, within three to five days, for individual patients, then sequenced by a high-throughput DNA sequencing machine. Thereafter, the information about the aptamers such as the chemical structures and amounts will be stored as a digital file specific for each individual patient.  When the patient needs anticancer drugs, the aptamers will be chemically re-synthesized on-demand, modified with cytotoxic molecules or magnetic nanoparticles, and injected back to the patient to treat reappeared metastatic cancer spots. In addition, the selected aptamers can then visualize metastases with the help of body scans for evaluation of the cancer treatment.

Do you have a tip how to overcome one´s weaker self?

I advise my students to do science every day to become a good scientist. I call it “no day without experiment”. Ask yourself a scientific question and try to answer it by doing mental or lab experiments each day without long breaks. If the question looks problematic, split it into small questions and attack them one by one. Don’t forget to ask your colleagues and friends for help. It works.

How can you relax the best?

When I watch sci-fi movies or walk listening sci-fi audiobooks.

How do you like Erlangen and/or Nuremberg and the region surrounding those cities?

I enjoy every time when I visit the university botanic garden in the center of Erlangen and the old city of Bamberg.

Thank you for the interview, Prof. Dr. Berezovski.

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