Jürgen Wehland Award goes to molecular biologist Katherine Beckham

For the seventh time running, HZI has awarded its prize for junior infection researchers during the “North Regio Day on Infection” symposium (NoRDI)

The molecular biologist Dr Katherine Beckham has received the 2018 Jürgen Wehland Award. She is a scientist at the Hamburg branch of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), working in the research department run by Prof Matthias Wilmanns. Beckham is investigating special molecular tools of bacterial pathogens, through which germs deliver infectious proteins to the cells of its host. The Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig has granted the Jürgen Wehland Award, endowed with 5000 euros, for the seventh time, thus honouring junior researchers doing important work in infection research.

P1060367_bearb.jpgDr Katherine S. H. Beckham, winner of this year‘s Jürgen Wehland Award, together with (from left) Prof Hansjörg Hauser from the Friends of the HZI, Prof Dirk Heinz and Prof Matthias Wilmanns. Image: HZI/Susanne Thiele

Bacterial pathogens have an arsenal of molecular tools that they need in order to be able to efficiently infect a host organism. Researchers refer to these tools as virulence factors. This includes specific structures of the bacteria, but also protein molecules that damage or manipulate the host cell. For example, several types of bacteria form syringe-like constructs, or so-called secretion systems, with which they inject such virulence factors into host cells. Katherine Beckham is researching these secretion systems at the EMBL. The objective of her research is to understand the structure and function of the bacterial syringes in detail, and thus find different starting points for new antibiotic agents. As an increasing number of bacterial pathogens are becoming resistant to common antibiotics, researchers are looking for alternative therapies. One of these approaches is the anti-virulence strategy that aims to inhibit virulence factors such as the secretion systems of the pathogens, thus weakening the virulence of the bacteria and allowing the immune system to eliminate them. In contrast to antibiotics, an anti-virulence agent would not kill the bacteria. The advantage of this is that the pathogen would be subjected to a much lower selection pressure to develop a resistance to the agent.

“Katherine Beckham's innovative research is making a substantial contribution to the area of alternative anti-virulence strategies, which is an important topic for the future of infection research,” says Prof Dirk Heinz, Scientific Director of the HZI. “She convinced us with her high-quality work and top-class published research. This is why we are pleased to honour her with the 2018 Jürgen Wehland Award.” Beckham not only does innovative infection research, but also making an important contribution in these times of increasing resistance to antibiotics.

Born in Great Britain, Katherine Beckham studied molecular biology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In 2014, she completed her doctoral thesis in the target structures of anti-virulence compounds under the Wellcome Trust Programme at the University of Glasgow. Since then, Beckham has been working as a scientist at EMBL in Hamburg.

The Jürgen Wehland Award is given in honour of the former Scientific Director of the HZI, who passed away unexpectedly in 2010 after just one year in office. This year, the award has been granted for the seventh time by the HZI and the Friends of the HZI. The award was handed over during the NoRDI symposium (“North Regio Day on Infection”), which focussed this year on innovative and alternative approaches to fighting multi-resistant pathogens that go beyond the development of new antibiotics.

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