Professor Wessjohann, who has been researching anti-cancer substances for over 20 years wants to decode the chemical structure of these agents in order to advance the development of cancer drugs. For, according to estimates by the Gesellschaft der epidemiologischen Krebsregister in Deutschland e.V. (GEKID) (‘The Society of Epidemiological Cancer Registries in Germany’) and the Robert Koch Institute, 450,000 new cases of cancer are expected this year alone.
As Professor Wessjohann explains, “The plant itself has no interest in healing people, and only wants to protect itself. This is why plants produce cytotoxic (i.e. “cell-killing”) substances in order to survive. However, if we were to succeed in making these substances useable, we would also be able to protect ourselves”. On Earth there are more than 280,000 species of algae – 40,000 of which have already been researched. As a result of this research, 70 active ingredients have been discovered in algae that can kill cancer cells.
Together with colleagues from the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences, particularly in the team led by bioscientist Professor Carola Griehl, they are conducting research into the microalgae Eustigmatos. It is a robust species of algae which is ideal for growing in the laboratory. In order to produce enough active ingredients for research purposes, the algae are grown in a tubular photobioreactor under laboratory conditions all year round at the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences in Köthen. Protein molecules are then isolated from these algae at the Leibniz Institute. As Professor Wessjohann explains, “these proteins are lipopeptides – small, fat‑soluble and often ring‑shaped protein molecules – that we want to decode”.
However, as large quantities are needed for the production of cancer drugs, it makes sense for these substances to be synthetically produced. “By making chemical changes we hope to even be able to improve on the naturally occurring substance itself”. But in the same breath, Wessjohann also warns against excessive euphoria.
“We are still at the very beginning of our research cooperation. It can take up to 15 years until a cancer drug can be given to patients. I must also say quite clearly that there will be no miracle cure, just as ‘cancer’ does not exist in a single form. Unfortunately, there are thousands of types of cancer that can afflict people. However, even if we are only able to cure a small number of patients with a new cancer drug, this is already a major step in the fight against cancer. This happened with the cancer drug Taxol, which was approved in 1993. Its use has increased the chances of curing some cancers from ten to 30 percent”.
Professor Wessjohann has been carrying out research for ten years at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry (IPB) in Halle an der Saale. The chemist has studied at the University of Hamburg, in England and in Norway. After completing his doctorate in 1990 he made several research trips to Brazil and the United States, where, at Stanford University, he was involved in the synthesis of the cancer drug Taxol ® which is made from an ingredient naturally found in yew trees. In 1992 he returned to Germany, gained his postdoctoral teaching qualification (“Habilitation”) at the University of Munich and was last employed at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands. “I have carried out research in many countries, but I have rarely found such good research conditions as those at the Leibniz Institute in Halle”, says Wessjohan. “The best example is the support provided to this project by the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs of Saxony-Anhalt”;
Author: Dagmar Perschke
Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry
06120 Halle (Saale)
Professor Ludger Wessjohann
Department of Bioorganic Chemistry of the IPB
Tel: 0345 5582 1301
Professor Carola Griehl
Department of Applied Biosciences and Process Engineering of the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences
Tel: 03496 67 2526