Herpes agent wins 2018 German Future Prize | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 29.11.2018
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German Future Prize 2018

Herpes agent wins 2018 German Future Prize

Germany's president has presented this year's Future Prize to the inventors of a new medicine against a herpes virus. Other teams nominated came from the fields of mechanical engineering and chemistry.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced the winner of the 2018 German Future Prize in Berlin on Wednesday evening.

The prize is awarded for inventions that have already achieved a breakthrough in industry, and thus improve people's lives. Three teams were vying for the honor, which this time went to inventors in the field of medicine: 

Protection against herpes viruses during organ transplant

Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff and Holger Zimmermann, together with their Wuppertal-based company AiCuris, have committed themselves to fighting dangerous viruses. Rübsamen-Schaeff founded AiCuris in 2006 as a spinoff from pharmaceutical giant Bayer.

Read more: Developing drugs a thousand times faster

One of the viruses she was researching is the human cytomegalovirus (CMV). This herpes virus is widespread and occurs chronically in almost all people in developing countries and in about half of people in industrialized countries. The virus rarely causes symptoms, but is present in those affected throughout their lives.

CMV only becomes a problem when patients suffer from a weakened immune system. A virus infection can then break out and attack organs, damage the gastrointestinal tract and even lead to blindness.

Pipetting for antiviral drug research at AiCuris in Wuppertal, Germany

Pipetting for antiviral drug research at AiCuris in Wuppertal, Germany

It is particularly dangerous when patients receive a bone marrow transplant. During this time they do not have their own immune protection and have to rebuild it over time. A CMV infection in this transitional phase can be fatal.

Here a CMV prophylaxis called Letermovir can provide protection. It was developed by Rübsamen-Schaeff and brought to market together with Zimmermann. It is an enzyme — a so-called "non-nucleosidic CMV inhibitor" — which blocks virus replication.

The drug can also help people who receive kidney transplants. And in newborns, whose mothers suffer from CMV, prophylaxis can prevent severe damage to the nervous system.

Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff and Holger Zimmermann (Deutscher Zukunftspreis/A. Pudenz)

Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff and Holger Zimmermann have invented a medication to suppress herpes infections

And here are the two other candidates, who were nominated:

Reinventing the cogwheel

Gears consist of cogwheels that mesh together in complex ways. They transmit the power and rotations generated by motors so skilfully that machines always receive the desired speed and force they need.

Conventional gears, however, have one weakness: There are always relatively few cogs simultaneously involved in the actual transmission of power at a given moment. The surface with which a single cog hits the opposite cogwheel is always only limited to a very narrow strip. And the gears in which a machine most frequently runs, will wear out faster.

Read more about 2016: Fascinating carbon concrete

That's why engineers Manfred Wittenstein and Thomas Bayer have reinvented the gearwheel: They dismantled it into many smaller individual teeth, which are mounted in such a way that they have complete surface contact with the opposite gear during power transmission.

Better geometry makes it possible to significantly increase the surface area. This reduces the wear of the cogs and increases the efficiency and service life of the gearbox many times over.

New gearbox by Wittenstein

This is the transmission of the future: The teeth engage fully and hold much better

The new gears are stiffer against torsional forces, generate less unwanted vibrations, run more smoothly and can also be controlled more precisely. Machine tools run better with the new gears and metalworkers — on a lathe, for example — can finish their workpieces faster. 

Read more about 2015: A drug that gave pulmonary hypertension patients a longer life

Storing hydrogen safely — why not in liquid?

Everyone agrees that hydrogen will be an important energy carrier of the future. The element is practically unlimited and can easily be produced by electrolysis with green electricity. It is also quite easy to generate electricity from it again: With fuel cells, this can be done in a well controlled and fairly safe way.

Manfred Wittenstein and Thomas Bayer

Manfred Wittenstein and Thomas Bayer supply machine builders worldwide with their special gear units.

The only question still worrying engineers is how to store it. Hydrogen, like other technical gases, can be stored or liquefied under pressure, but that's not easy to do. The gas is extremely flammable — even highly explosive, in combination with oxygen.

Today's standard storage pressure is 700 bar — more than twice the pressure of conventional air cylinders. Liquefaction requires temperatures below minus 250 degrees Celsius (minus 418 degrees Fahrenheit). 

Read more: Better steels through horizontal casting

LOHC carrier liquid (Deutscher Zukunftspreis/A. Pudenz)

The LOHC carrier liquid does not become easily flammable even if elemental hydrogen is stored in it.

To solve the problem, Peter Wasserscheid and Wolfgang Arlt, both professors at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU), and Daniel Teichmann, managing director of Hydrogenious Technologies GmbH, have devised a completely different solution: Chemically binding the hydrogen in a harmless carrier liquid. It can then be transported quite normally — in tank trucks or pipelines, for example — and then released from the liquid again if necessary.

The liquid itself can be seen as serving the function of empty "redemption value bottles or containers." After the hydrogen is taken out, it can again be used as a carrier substance.

The whole thing is called LOHC technology (liquid organic hydrogen carrier). The carrier liquid is a hydrocarbon called dibenzyltoluene.

Read moreRemaining curious about the future

Peter Wasserscheid, Wolfgang Arlt and Daniel Teichmann

Peter Wasserscheid, Wolfgang Arlt and Daniel Teichmann laid the foundation for safe hydrogen logistics

Although the chemical is defined as "hazardous to health," according to the EU hazardous substance label, it is not toxic. It is flame retardant, nonexplosive, and thus even easier to handle and less risky than conventional fuels such as petrol or diesel. This means that the extensive construction of hydrogen filling stations would not be a problem from a safety point of view.

LOHC is already being used where industrial companies depend on a secure supply of hydrogen, for example in the United States. Hydrogen filling stations that are supplied with hydrogen are also under construction in Germany, China and Finland.

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