There is something rather Father Christmas-esque about Erwin Neher (74): friendly, cheerful, (thinning) grey hair and an equally grey, dishevelled, though well-formed beard. Anyone would say his story was stuff of fairy-tale, in his role as Mr Nice Guy, of course, if it wasn’t actually true. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1991, along with Bert Sakmann, for their observations concerning the function of single ion channels in cells. Highly analytical and a lover of nature and animals, he soon knew he would study Physics, though with one clear idea in mind: to later add a degree in Biology and become a Biophysicist. He entered university in 1963, until 1967, when, after spending time in Wisconsin —where he specialised in Biophysics—, he returned to Munich. There he joined the Max Planck Institute, where he was named director of the Department for Membrane Biophysics in 1983. Yet despite his illustrious background, he remains with his feet firmly planted on the ground. If there is something you don’t understand, he will explain it again, or turn it around. That’s just how Erwin Neher is: a man who loves his work and his family, his wife and five children.
What did you think when you won the Nobel Prize?
Mixed feelings, really. On the one hand, great satisfaction, of course, because we had reached a goal which probably many scientists dream of; yet, on the other, I was kind of worried. What will come now? It’s a lot of responsibility.
Did you expect it?
No, though, you know, when colleagues nominate you, they request your CV and documents. So when, as a scientist, I got a request from somebody in mid-January to send my CV, I suspected it might be a Nobel Prize nomination. We actually knew we were nominated many times. A strange thing happened in 1990. I was invited three or four times to conferences at Swedish universities, and I was often probed in interviews. I was hoping it might be a possibility, but then nothing happened. A year later, I had forgotten about it, and it happened. It was a surprise.
Is your research the future of the solution for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other similar pathologies?
Not exactly. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are neurodegenerative diseases, in which neurons die, and, as Ramon y Cajal taught us, when a neuron dies, it is gone forever: they do not regenerate. Depending on where in the brain this degeneration happens, the person will develop symptoms of these diseases. My work is based on one question: why do cells die? In the last five years, my research has helped understand this phenomenon. But it is not my area of research. In the beginning, I studied the basic mechanism of how a nerve pulse is generated. More recently, I’ve concentrated on synaptic transmission; how one neuron speaks to the next one. In particular, I’ve focused on how the ascending neuron sends out a signal, which happens by releasing a chemical called a “neural transmitter”. This neural transmitter has occupied my research over the last 20 years.
With regards to any particular diseases?
Not really. We only study the physiological process, which is related to certain neuroendrocrinological problems. There are a number of psychiatric diseases which are now seen as diseases of the synapse, such as autism. It is quite clear that it is correlated with certain proteins involved in neural transmitter release. Schizophrenia also has its roots in some dysfunction of the synapse. But, honestly, studies about where in the brain this process happens and what exactly changes are still much a matter of debate and research.
Why is it so difficult to find a solution to these pathologies?
The brain is terribly complex, much more than finding out why the TV doesn’t work or why the car doesn’t run.
Is it the most complex part of a human being?
Do you think we are getting closer to a solution?
I think we might be closer to a breakthrough in neurological matters, such as in degenerative diseases, than in psychiatric diseases. Because, to prevent cell death, it’s enough to understand how a single cell reacts: when it arrives, if it divides and generates other cells… And it’s a relatively well circumscribed problem. But understanding the whole system, why a person is schizophrenic, requires much more than understanding what happens at a single cell level.
It sometimes seems that research in basic science is disconnected from daily life. How could “translational science”, which is present in Biomedicine and seeks to quickly bring developments from the lab to patients, become a reality?
We usually become scientists because we are interested in certain questions. Politicians and society want us to cure diseases, to produce results within two years. And we have to maintain and try to convince people that it’s not to do with this or that, but in finding the right mix between the two. If you generate new knowledge through basic research, you have a much better chance of finding new applications, new uses. It’s the right mix that gives the optimal result. Having said that, can you guess what percentage of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, which is Germany’s main funding agency, corresponds to basic research in the Max Plank Society?
It’s barely 3 or 4% of the total budget for research and development in Germany.
That’s not much.
Not at all! It should be the job of the government to finance basic research for the benefit of everyone. Of course, as scientists, we publish our results –we don’t have secrets–, but it stays here, near universities: in Boston, Harvard, or wherever. And though everybody in the world can read the publications from Stanford University, it doesn’t seem to be enough. It seems that basic research and technology developments have to be brought together –geographically as well– in order to develop a real innovative spirit.
In this sense, do you think the future of medicine is biomedical science?
Biomedicine is the scientific basis of medical practice, and in this sense it’s a preliminary step. They might not be treating patients, but they’re supplying all the scientific support for treatments, like cell cultures or mass spectrometry. In the past, this discipline was quite delimited, as in radiotherapy, where very often physicists were needed to run the equipment and handle the isotopes, or do many other things in the clinic, without being doctors. As molecular medicine evolves, biomedical science will become more necessary, of course.
The same could be said for Bioinformatics, don’t you think?
Yes, of course. Thanks to Bioinformatics, we can extract useful knowledge from the huge amount of data available from sequencing, from genomics, for example. And since this technique of genomic sequencing is becoming cheaper, there will no longer be a restricting cost factor. The job of Bioinformatics is to eliminate irrelevant data. It will be used in cancer therapy to discover what is going on, and then this information will help us select the right kind of molecular medicines, which interfere with certain signal pathways. It will be a big field in which to work.
It seems we need more interdisciplinary studies to be aware of everything that’s going on.
Yes. Physical and chemical sciences, and informatics.
What profile should a researcher have?
They need to be curious, and to nurture this curiosity by pursuing what they think is really interesting. And have the ability to really dive into a problem.
Kind of like a journalist?
Yes, like a journalist, and of course they also need skills in order to resolve the problems. In some fields, it’s enough to read lots of literature; but they also need analytical skills, mathematical skills…; not necessary for all researchers, but for some things. Those are the basics.
With your experience, can you say that dedicating yourself to research has been worth it?
Research, in a way, is hard. It’s competitive, and you have to compete. But it’s one of the few possibilities in our society where you can do things that are self-determined, which fulfil your own plans. Artists can. They follow their artistic drive. But I think even in Spain it may be easier to make a living as a scientist than as an artist.
In Spain, we have the problem of “brain drain”, particularly towards Germany.
Spain is intelligent, and this experience will end up returning. That’s what happened in China, for instance. Over the years we’ve had many Chinese students. Twenty years ago they all came to us and then went to the States and stayed there. Then, fifteen years ago, they came to us, went to the States and returned. And now China is making huge efforts to get back whoever they can. Their economy is flourishing as a result, and their technological development is remarkable.
Do you think scientists are a bit like artists?
Yes, scientists are a little bit like artists, but with the privilege, at least some of them, of being supported by society. Curiosity and creativity: that’s what research needs.
* Interview conducted with the invaluable collaboration of lecturer Natalia Ricco, manager of the New Cyclins Group in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (UIC Barcelona). Erwin Neher was invited to take part in a scholarly meeting at our university, thanks to the Royal European Academy of Doctors (RAED), and “la Caixa” Foundation.