Cardiovascular diseases are among the most common diseases in both men and women. Yet myocardial infarction, cardiac insufficiency, and coronary artery disease often differ depending on gender, and the causes also vary between men and women.
Cardiac insufficiency, often referred to simply as heart failure, is characterized by the inability of the heart muscle to function properly. The muscle cells have structural defects and are interspersed with connective tissue. Cardiologists distinguish here between the condition where the heart chambers become massively enlarged and the condition where there is an uncontrolled increase in wall thickness of the left atrium and a reduced volume of the left ventricle. “In women the latter form of heart failure is much more common, but we don’t know why,” reports Sophie Van Linthout. “And there are no specific treatment options for women or men.” To remedy this, Ralph Knöll, Sophie Van Linthout, and Carsten Tschöpe have teamed up to study gender-specific differences in mice in which a genetic modification causes a particular muscle protein (myosin) to be constantly active, contributing to the loss of function in heart muscle cells and to the development of fibrosis and severe enlargement of the left atrium.
The second project, led by Jeanette Erdmann in collaboration with Teresa Gerhardt and Elisabeth Strässler, focuses on coronary heart disease. “Although overall the death rate from heart attacks and strokes has dropped by 60 percent in the last 20 years, we have seen that young women are the least likely to benefit from this improvement,” says Gerhardt, who is a participant in the BIH Charité Clinician Scientist Program. “We have found a gene called MYOZ2 which is associated with a significantly higher cardiovascular risk in women than in men,” explains Erdmann. The researchers want to switch off the MYOZ2 gene in human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs), specifically in female cells and in male hiPSCs. They then plan to let the genetically modified stem cells mature into vascular cells in the laboratory to study what effects these manipulations have depending on gender.
Professor Christopher Baum, Chair of the BIH Board of Directors and Chief Translational Research Officer of Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, emphasizes that “the different manifestations of diseases in women and men are still far too rarely taken into account in medical research projects. With the BIH Excellence Award for Sex and Gender Aspects in Health Research we want to help to close this gap. So we are very pleased that with this year’s award winners we are recognizing high-caliber male and female scientists who are supporting us in this endeavor and at the same time are valuable cooperation partners in our mission to advance medical translation.”
About the award winners
Professor Jeanette Erdmann studied biology in Cologne and did her doctoral work at the Institute of Human Genetics in Bonn. After receiving her doctorate, she served as a research group leader in Berlin and Regensburg. She qualified as a professor at Universität Regensburg. Since 2003 she has been working at the Universität zu Lübeck. In 2012 she was appointed to a tenured DZHK Professorship by the German Centre for Cardiovascular Research Diseases. Since 2013 she has successfully led the newly founded Institute for Cardiogenetics, which aims to better understand the genetic factors that lead to cardiovascular diseases, e.g., atherosclerosis and heart attacks. Since July 2021, she has been a member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina.
Professor Ralph Knöll is Chief Scientist at the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and a Principal Investigator at the Department of Medicine Huddinge at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. He was recruited from Imperial College London where he was Professor and Chair of Myocardial Genetics from 2009 to 2014. He was formerly head of a research group studying cardiovascular molecular genetics at the University of Göttingen from 2004 to 2009. Knöll has a strong interest in genetics, physiology and pharmacology of the cardiovascular system. His translational research aims to unravel the epigenetic mechanisms underlying the biology of human cardiac disease and to use these findings as a basis for developing new therapies for heart failure.
About the award
The Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) is presenting the BIH Excellence Award for Sex and Gender Aspects in Health Research for the third time in 2021. The award aims to bring more visibility to sex and gender issues in translational research. It recognizes research excellence among scientists working in the field of biomedicine who integrate sex and gender aspects into their research. The award focuses on both the research impact of the applicant and their future research collaboration with a partner from the BIH. In bringing the laureate’s expertise to Berlin, the BIH aims to connect the award winners with scientists at the BIH, thus facilitating the development of a joint research project that serves the BIH’s mission of turning research into health and focuses on sex and gender aspects.
The award winners will each receive €25,000 to support and further develop the joint research project with BIH partners. The funding is available for a period of two years and can for example be used to supervise an early career scientist or can go towards services of the BIH Core Facilities or joint publications.