Molecular biologist Frank Bradke is one of 10 academics who will receive the prestigious German award in March. His research found that certain cancer drugs were able to rebuild damaged nerve cells.
Ten top researchers were confirmed as winners of the 2016 Leibniz Prize from the Bonn-based German Research Foundation on Thursday, with each of them picking up endowments of 2.5 million euros ($2.75 million) each.
The prize - named after renowned polymath and philosopher Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz - has been given out to exceptional scientists and academics working in Germany every year since 1985.
One of the winners, 46-year-old Frank Bradke, is a professor of neurobiology at the University of Bonn and group leader at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases.
Much of his recent research has dealt with the issue of how to grow nerve cells. The question he wanted to answer was 'How do damaged nerve cells regenerate after an accident?'
"The Leibniz Prize is a confirmation that we are on the right track," said Bradke, following his win
Bradke's research focused on which molecular biological processes ensure that some nerve cells grow again after injury, while others do not.
Scientists know that how and whether damaged nerves can be recovered depends largely on where in the body they are located. Nerve cells in limbs, the trunk or the nose can recover their original function fully or at least partially.
But neurons in the brain and spinal cord don't have this ability, and often injuries or damage from disease lead to long-term or irreversible damage or paralysis - for example after a stroke or spinal cord injury. So Bradke wanted to reveal what hampered the regeneration of local nerve cells, known as axons.
"Chemicals that block the growth [of nerve cells] are released by the scar tissue that is formed due to injures," explains the molecular biologist. Consequently, any treatment administered following head or spinal cord injuries should avoid the possibility of scarring, he added.
Certain cancer drugs can help, Bradke found. They help reduce scarring and thereby promote the regeneration of nerve cells, at least in animal studies. In rats with a spinal cord injury, mobility improved significantly after treatment.
"There is certainly a long way [to go] before we start treating patients." said Bradke. His most recent research has certainly helped but now the priority must be to search for targeted drugs that can one day be used in clinical practice, he added.
The 10 researchers will formally receive their Leibniz prizes in Berlin on March 1, 2016.