Prize Awarded to Researcher of Microglia’s Role in Brain Diseases
A professor at the University of Freiburg, in Germany, was awarded the Novo Nordisk Prize for his research into the role of microglia in diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and Alzheimer’s disease, and how they might be used as early warning signs of these disorders.
Marco Prinz, MD, also director at the university’s Institute of Neuropathology, was awarded the prize, worth 5 million Danish krone (approximately $822,000). The prize honors active scientists whose work benefits people’s lives by advancing medical science, and includes a 4.5-million Danish krone ($740,000) grant to continue research in the field and a personal award of 0.5 million ($82,000).
“Marco Prinz is an exceptional clinician scientist who exemplifies how basic and clinical research can come together to generate paradigm-shifting new knowledge,” Jørgen Frøkiær, chair of the committee that awards the prize, said in a press release.
“With the 2021 Novo Nordisk Prize, we celebrate bridging the gap between basic and applied research in neuroimmunology,” he said.
Over his career, Prinz has changed the way scientists think of microglia, from being the brain’s “garbage collectors” to forming a line of defense against the spread of toxic protein clumps that damage nerve cells.
“Most people found [microglia] boring, because they were thought to simply remove waste during illness,” Prinz said.
“Our research has shown that their function extends far beyond this role and that the development of microglia dates back to a remarkably short period during fetal development,” he said. “Microglia are key in maintaining the normal function of the brain, and their failure can therefore also lead to several very serious brain disorders.”
Microglia form part of the brain’s own immune system. Immune cells found elsewhere in the body can’t cross a membrane known as the blood-brain barrier to access the brain, which is why that organ — and the central nervous system generally, consisting of the brain and spinal cord — needs its own defenses.
Microglia become activated relatively early in conditions such as MS. When this happens, they multiply and work to remove dying parts of cells and the protein buildups that accompany them. These buildups — such as amyloid plaques in MS — can trigger inflammatory responses and contribute to further nerve cell death.
The microglia response appears somewhat short-term, however. After a few weeks of consuming and destroying potentially toxic material, microglia essentially tire out, at which point they begin to contribute to the development of brain disorders.
Currently, MS and related disorders tend to be diagnosed once the disease has already progressed past this point.
Prinz thinks that these disorders may be diagnosed before symptoms begin by using MRI or positron emission tomography scans to identify microglia-specific molecules in living patients.
“This is like an early alarm clock in the brain that can tell us things that are not possible to tell us today,” Prinz said. “Brain disease today is usually diagnosed based on the symptoms or even small biopsies from the human brain. If the microglia in a specific region are activated, we can then tell that the patient seems to be developing a specific brain disease.”
Such early detection could help lead to more individualized and potentially microglia-specific future treatments.
“We call these neuromodulatory therapies,” Prinz said. “They can be pharmaceutical interventions or brain stimulation to remedy and cure the diseases.”