Interview with Prof. Antje Prasse

"I see myself as a clinician-scientist"

Interview of the "Fraunhofer Magazine" (issue 1/2019) with Prof. Antje Prasse

The life expectancy of patients with untreated pulmonary fibrosis is three years. Drugs can slow, but not stop, the disease’s progress. Prof. Antje Prasse and her Fraunhofer Attract research group want to change that.

It is hardly surprising that Antje Prasse ended up at Fraunhofer. Her parents worked at the Fraunhofer Institute for High-Speed Dynamics, Ernst-Mach-Institut EMI in Freiburg (Germany), which is where they met and fell in love. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – Prasse’s talent for science surfaced at an early age. Unlike her parents, though, she was infatuated with medicine rather than physics. She studied at Freiburg, earned a doctorate in 1996 and attained her habilitation – that is, the qualification to teach at universities – in 2008 at Freiburg University Hospital with a thesis on interstitial lung diseases.

Pulmonary fibrosis is a complex disease with mechanisms that remain largely unexplored. What is certain is that the connective tissue surrounding the alveoli runs rampant with cells multiplying and hardening. As a result, blood is not properly oxygenated. Patients suffer from and eventually succumb to increasing shortness of breath. Of the many different types of pulmonary fibroses, the most common is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), but the cause of the disease remains a mystery.

Prasse has headed up an Attract research group at the Fraunhofer Institute for Toxicology and Experimental Medicine ITEM at Hannover for nearly five years. This group is developing new concepts for treating pulmonary fibrosis. The Fraunhofer Attract program’s funding will run out in fall of 2019. Fraunhofer magazine spoke with Antje Prasse about her research findings, her plans and the future of fibrosis research.

How did you hear about the Fraunhofer Attract program?

Prof. Norbert Krug, Director of Fraunhofer ITEM, and Prof. Jens Hohlfeld, Division Director of the institute's Division of Airway Research, called my attention to it. We knew each other well from a joint research project. At the time, I was a senior physician at Freiburg University Hospital and had set up a team to measure cell biology in interstitial lung diseases. The pharmaceutical industry was interested in our work, and I had conducted many projects for it. I was on a several-month research stay at Yale University when Norbert Krug got in touch with me.

What made Attract so attractive that you turned your back on Yale and heeded the call from Hannover?

There were several reasons. The Attract budget of 2.5 million euros over five years afforded me a great deal of freedom that I would not otherwise have had. The Hannover location was also persuasive. With Fraunhofer ITEM, the Hannover Medical School (MHH), the Clinical Research Center Hannover and the German Center for Lung Research, it offers unique infrastructure for clinical research into lung diseases. 

Working for Fraunhofer ITEM is not your only job. You also treat fibrosis patients as a senior physician at the MHH Department of Respiratory Medicine. Isn’t that a bit much for you?

No. The ties to the clinical practice and the personal interaction with patients are very important to me. I see myself as a clinician-scientist who quickly translates scientific insights into applications. Fraunhofer ITEM and the Department of Respiratory Medicine of the MHH are closely linked, both in terms of personnel and via the Centre for Lung Research. Being able to work for both institutions is ideal for me.

The Attract program’s funding will soon come to an end. What were the most important findings in the past five years?

We accomplished some outstanding things on the clinical side. We set up a pulmonary fibrosis center for patients from all over central and northern Germany. They know that they are in the best of hands here and are eager to take part in studies to finally find effective remedies against this disease. This enabled us to collect many samples, so we now have a deep well to draw on. Using our extensive biobank, we have developed several cell culture systems that pharmaceutical companies can use to test new agents. More and more companies are showing great interest in this. We have quite a few national and international cooperation partners, including Boehringer, Novartis, AstraZeneca, Indalo Therapeutics, and Nitto, a Japanese company.

Why is the industry showing such great interest? Are there really that many pulmonary fibrosis patients?

Some 500,000 people in Europe suffer from pulmonary fibrosis, and the patient count is rising. Pulmonary fibrosis is an age-related condition; patients are 68 years old on average. The incidence rate will increase as the demographics change. The catabiotic degenerative process plays an important role in the disease. It seems that the lungs are predisposed toward fibrosis, but other organs such as the liver, kidneys or eyes can also develop fibrosis, which leads to tissue destruction. We expect that if we succeed in treating pulmonary fibrosis, we can arrest the aging process – not only in the lungs, but also in other organs.

So this is about the vision of immortality?

In a sense, yes.

When do you think pulmonary fibrosis will be curable?

I doubt that we will be able to turn destroyed tissue back into healthy tissue anytime soon. We will not have arrived at this point in ten years’ time. But we could be there in twenty years if the pace of development continues at the current rate. What we can already do is significantly slow the course of the disease, and soon we may even be able to stop it altogether. 

What’s next for you personally?

I am unconcerned about my future. There are no signs of the pharmaceutical industry’s interest in my research waning; on the contrary. I am aiming for an academic chair, a W3 professorship, and I can well imagine continuing to work for both Fraunhofer ITEM and the MHH. It remains to be seen if the structures here are such that this will be possible. I would be delighted if that were the case.