4 November 1999

BioFuture Prize for Dr. Roland Eils

Unprecedented in-sights into dynamic processes in living cells – Heidelberg research scientist develops intelligent bioinformatic system – Prize worth DM 2.4 million – University of Heidelberg gives exclusive patenting licence to T.I.L.L. Photonics (Munich)

Dr. Roland Eils

Dr. Roland Eils of the Centre of Interdisciplinary Scientific Computing (IWR) at the University of Heidelberg has been awarded the BioFuture Prize of the Federal Ministry of Research for his pioneering achievements in research, development and transfer of bioinformatic systems for genetic diagnostics and basic cell-biology research. The 2.4 million marks that go with the prize will enable Roland Eils to expand the activities of his "Intelligent Biomedical Interpretation Systems" research group at the IWR and to put further research on a firm footing for the next five years. The Prize will be awarded to Dr. Eils by Federal Minister Edelgard Bulmahn on 16 November 1999 at the "BMBF Biotechnology Symposium 1999" in Bonn.

At the same time, the University of Heidelberg has put in an application for a patent on the system developed by Dr. Eils' research group. The T.I.L.L. Phototonics company (Munich) has acquired the exclusive rights from the patent and plans to put the system on the United States market in December 1999.

The "Intelligent Biomedical Interpretation Systems" research group

The research group "Intelligent Bioinformatic Systems" directed by Dr. Eils works on the development of bioinformatic systems for the interpretation of complex data generated by analytic processes in genetic diagnostics and cell-biology research and typically difficult or impossible to capture fully without computer aid. A central achievement is the development of image-analysis techniques for molecular cytogenetics enabling fully automatic chromosome analysis on the basis of M-FISH multi-colour chromosome painting strategies. These strategies developed by the team's external collaborator in Munich, Dr. M. Speicher, have revolutionised genetic diagnostics.

With the aid of biochemical procedures each chromosome is provided with a specific colour code, thus paving the way for a fully automatic genetic analysis at chromosome level. This is a major advance over techniques using one colour for all chromosomes. This technique has been integrated into a standard imaging system for use in cytogenetics developed by Leica Microsystems (Cambridge, UK). At present the system is being expanded to enable the use of the technique for libraries of disease-specific probes and an eventual combination with biochip strategies designed to make high-throughput genetic diagnostics a workable proposition. The University of Heidelberg and Dr. Roland Eils have applied for a patent on the bioinformatic techniques described above.

The staining techniques developed in the last few years to enhance visualisation of genome structures in living cell nuclei make it possible for the first time to image dynamic processes like gene regulation and gene expression in vivo. Such techniques provide completely new in-sights into the dynamic organisation of the human genome in the cell nucleus. The assumption is that these new insights will have major (though not yet precisely calculable) relevance for genetic diagnostics and therapy. On the analytic side of things, such techiques help to generate high-dimensional data requiring fundamentally new approaches to dynamic image-processing.

The licence contract

Eils' research group has developed an image analysis system for the study of dynamic processes in living cells. Recently, the visualisation of such processes has been made possible by the development of the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), leading to a veritable boom in basic cell-biology research. This major breakthrough has fulfilled the long-nurtured dream of being able to observe dynamic processes not only in fixed (non-living) systems but also in vivo.

In Heidelberg alone there are 50 groups working on the study of such processes, while the number of labs worldwide is estimated to be 2,000. It is anticipated that this figure will rise to 5,000 in the next twelve months. The system developed by the Heidelberg research group at IWR enables these users to subject the processes made visible under the microscope to qualitative and quantitative analysis and to image them on the computer screen.

The T.I.L.L. Photonics company (Munich) can point to long years of experience in the development of microscopic image recording systems and has a rapid and flexible pickup system highly suited to the capture of microscopic dynamic processes. Realising the high economic potential of the GFP-related market, T.I.L.L. has resolved to acquire an exclusive licence to the rights from the patent on the image analysis system put in for by the University of Heidelberg. For marketing purposes a strategic alliance has been formed between the University of Heidelberg as the owner of the industrial property rights, the T.I.L.L. Photonics company and two other enterprises. The transfer of the image analysis system to the Till Vision System and the further development of the technique will be undertaken by the Steinbeis "Intelligent Biomedical Interpretation Systems" Technology Transfer Centre under the direction of Dr. Eils. To this end a separate R&D contract has been concluded between T.I.L.L. and the Steinbeis GmbH & Co. The worldwide marketing of the new product will be in the hands of Olympus Europa GmbH (Hamburg). Market launch is planned to coincide with the annual meeting of the American Cell Biology Society in Washington, D.C. in December of this year.

Further information:
On the research of the Bioinformatics group: http://www.iwr.uni-heidelberg.de/iwr/bioinf
on the licensee: http://www.till-photonics.com
on the licensing contract: Dr. Christian Stein, head of the licensing and patents agency (PLA) at the Frauenhofer Patents Office (phone: (0049) (0)89/205497)
on the BioFuture prize: http://www.kfa-juelich.de/beo/biofutur.htm

Persons to contact for more information:
Prof. Dr. Willi Jaeger, IWR, University of Heidelberg, phone: 06221/548234;
Dr. A. Hache, BioFuture section leader at the DLR department of the Federal Ministry of Research;
Dr. Michael Schwarz, Press Officer of the University of Hedidelberg, phone:06221/542310, fax: 542317

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