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Biochemist sees prize as sign of integration

(Keystone)

This year's Swiss Nobel has gone to Finnish biochemist Ari Helenius, whose insights into the interactions between viruses and cells open up new perspectives.

swissinfo spoke to the winner of the 2007 Marcel Benoist Prize, a professor at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, to talk about pathogens, integration and Trojan horses.

Helenius, who moved to Switzerland a decade ago from Yale University, received the prize on Thursday for his pioneering work into how viruses enter cells and what strategies they use to convince their host to cooperate with them.

swissinfo: What does it mean to you to receive the Marcel Benoist Prize?

Ari Helenius: It is very important to me, perhaps more than for other recipients. I've only been in Switzerland for ten years, so the prize means that I am totally integrated, accepted and taken seriously by my colleagues. Ten years is not a long time [in science] and a large amount of my work was carried out before I came here. It shows how open the Swiss community is to outsiders, in particular foreign scientists. Our experience is that experts from abroad are welcome.

swissinfo: How do you compare your American and Swiss experiences?

A.H.: In the United States, I worked at [Yale] medical school where the main focus was clinical research. The expertise was in medicine. That was very useful for me at the time as I am a biochemist. In Zurich, I am at an engineering school. That means there's a totally different type of expertise. I have extremely useful collaborations with computer scientists, with engineers, with instrument developers, and that's the kind of expertise we need now. The federal institute has a great culture of communication across disciplines and I have really benefited from this engineering environment.

swissinfo: What convinced you come to Switzerland and leave Yale behind?

A.H.: I wanted to make a change in my life. The position that was offered to me was excellent in terms of funding, space and instrumentation. It allowed me to move into new technologies, which I could not afford at Yale. My research was able to leap forward in an important way.

swissinfo : How would you describe your research?

A.H.: Everything is based on viruses and how they interact with cells. The interaction is quite complicated even though viruses themselves are very simple. Viruses are defined as pathogens that cannot replicate by themselves. The only way for them to replicate is to enter a cell and force that cell to reproduce copies of the virus, making it a virus factory.

The virus is totally dependent on the cell and therefore has to understand the biology of its host. They know all the passwords, all the pin codes and they take advantage of the cell's machinery. But it takes a huge number of interactions to go through this cycle, and this is what we are focusing on.

swissinfo: What fascinates you with viruses?

A.H.: Initially, I was attracted by their incredible simplicity. They are basically packages of genes with a coating. The fact that they can cause so many diseases and biological problems is just amazing. They can do that because they are so specialised in entering and interacting with cells.

That's the fascination: just how do they do it? My first aim was to describe how they were put together. Later on, I wanted to know how the virus interacts with its host and the complexity of these processes moved the focus to the cell itself.

The virus uses a Trojan horse strategy, fixing itself to the cell surface before being internalised by the host. The cell basically makes one mistake after another when dealing with the virus. By studying this mechanism, we learn a lot about the virus, but also a lot about the cell.

swissinfo: What are the potential applications of this knowledge?

A.H.: We have to go back to the Trojan horse. It would have never entered Troy without the help of the Trojans, in our case the cellular factors. One of the things I'm looking at with my colleagues is what cell proteins are required for a virus to infect a cell.

We are trying to identify all the Trojans. We know for one particular virus, it might be several hundred proteins that are needed. These can be identified using modern technology and data from the Human Genome Project. Based on this, we can get all the names and addresses of the Trojans involved.

We hope to use this information to block or inhibit one or more critical Trojans from working for the virus. We could then contemplate new anti-viral agents directed against the cell instead of the virus. The advantages are that there are many Trojans we can target and this approach would make it difficult for viruses to acquire drug resistance. The problem with today's anti-viral drugs that target the virus is that resistance emerges rapidly.

swissinfo-interview: Scott Capper

Ari Helenius

Ari Helenius has been a professor of biochemistry in Zurich since 1997.

He was born in 1944 in Oulu, Finland and studied biochemistry at the University of Helsinki.

He received his doctorate in 1973 and worked another six years as a staff scientist at the European Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Heidelberg, Germany.

He then moved to Yale in the United States and in 1983, he was given a full professorship in the department of cell biology.

From 1992 to 1997 he was chairman of this department.

His current research centres on membrane biology, virology and protein chemistry, using methods from biochemistry, cell and molecular biology.

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Marcel Benoist Prize

The Marcel Benoist Foundation for the promotion of scientific research was founded on November 5, 1920 by the Swiss government in accordance with the last will of Marcel Benoist, a Frenchman living in Lausanne.

He had left most of his wealth to the authorities to be used to fund an annual award for a scientist of Swiss nationality or a resident of Switzerland.

The foundation board meets once a year to elect the laureates and determine the amount of the award (SFr100,000 in 2007).

Since 1997, the prize has also been open to researchers from humanities and social sciences.

The Swiss Nobel, as it's sometimes called, has been attributed to scientists –including most recently Richard Ernst and Kurt Wüthrich - who later went on to win the Nobel Prize itself.

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