Award-winning biologist owes success to worms

Michael Hengartner says young scientists need opportunities to prove themselves. SNF

Molecular biologist Michael Hengartner has received the prestigious Latsis Prize for young researchers for his work on cell death.

This content was published on January 11, 2007 - 11:51

Hengartner, a Swiss who grew up in Canada and began his research career in the United States, told swissinfo that if he has enjoyed some success so far, it was because others were prepared to give him a chance.

The prize was handed over at a ceremony in the capital, Bern, on Thursday.

His work on apoptosis, or programmed cell death, at Zurich University involves a tiny worm called Caenorhabditis elegans. This parasite, which he has been studying for nearly 20 years, lives in plants and animals or in soil, but more importantly, also has a very simple structure and genetic makeup.

The importance of this research was highlighted in 2002, when Hengartner's mentor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Robert Horvitz, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

swissinfo: Why study cell death?

Michael Hengartner: These mechanisms are very important since many human diseases are associated with too many or too few cell deaths. The hope is that if, for example, we can figure out how to tell cancer cells to kill themselves, or convince brain cells not to die after a stroke, we can fight these health problems more efficiently.

swissinfo: You use worms for your research. Is there some kind of fascination at work here or are they just a model?

M.H.: I care actually about humans, not worms. But studying Caenorhabditis elegans is a really good way of understanding the basics of how biological processes work. It's a bit like a toy car. If I want to understand how a car works, I could take my own car to pieces, but unless I am an expert, it might be too complicated for me. But by using a toy car to explain what a vehicle does, I would have a pretty good understanding of its role without too much extra information.

My worms are perhaps more sophisticated than a toy car, but they are still basic. Even if they are different from humans, they are still similar enough to give us a blueprint of how we function. Most important cell mechanisms developed early during evolution and have been conserved since then. Worms are much more like us than you would think.

swissinfo: You trained in a North American environment. Has that had a strong influence on the way you carry out research?

M.H.: It has. I would like to think that I would have ended up doing science this way even if I had grown up in Switzerland, but I'm not sure. I'm very comfortable with the way science is done in the United States. It's an open environment: you're allowed to make mistakes; you're encouraged to try things, prove crazy ideas. If you fall on your nose, you just get up and try something else. In Europe, it's not as bad as some people say, but if you have a crazy idea, people tend to tell you why it won't work rather than encourage you to try it out.

swissinfo: You are 40 years old. Do you see yourself as a forerunner for what Swiss science should become, with scientists being given an academic position earlier in their careers?

M.H.: I think we have to make an effort to give our best young people a chance early on to prove themselves. They might fail, but they might also do something wonderful. I became a group leader at age 27. Most people would consider that to be way too early, but it was just right for me. If people are prepared to make the jump at an early age, and if they have the capacity to run a laboratory, I say give them a chance. Young people tend to drive science, since that's where the energy, the imagination and the willingness to take risks can be found.

swissinfo-interview: Scott Capper

In brief

Programmed cell death is the deliberate suicide of an unwanted cell in a multicellular organism.

It is carried out in a regulated process that generally confers advantages during an organism's life cycle.

Apoptosis is one of the main types of programmed cell death, and can occur when a cell is damaged beyond repair, infected with a virus, or undergoing stress conditions such as starvation.

Apoptosis also plays a role in preventing cancer; if a cell is unable to undergo apoptosis, due to mutation or biochemical inhibition, it can continue dividing and develop into a tumour.

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Key facts

The Latsis Foundation was created by Greek shipping tycoon John S. Latsis, who died in Geneva in 2003.
Each year it gives out four university prizes valued at SFr25,000, as well as one national and one European Latsis prize worth SFr100,000.
The national prize honours the outstanding scientific achievements of a researcher aged 40 or less in Switzerland.

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