Co-Operations Are An Expression Of Our Scientific Freedom

I am Imre Berger, synthetic biologist, Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry at the University of Bristol and Founding and Managing director of the Max Planck Bristol Centre. A guy who loves science, loves to have fun and loves to work with great colleagues doing great science and chasing crazy ideas – which is all the Max Planck Centre is about. I am German, was trained and worked in USA, Switzerland and France and came to Bristol towards the end of 2016 together with my spouse who is my favorite collaborator on many projects including our two kids, and who is also a professor of Biochemistry and an expert in cryo-electron microscopy at Bristol University.

Prof. Imre Berger PhD HDR FRSB Founding Director, Max Planck Centre for Minimal Biology

Bristol is particularly strong in synthetic biology and I was very keen on joining the Bristol Synthetic Biology Centre BrisSynBio when I arrived. BrisSynBio had this great collaboration with MaxSynBio, which is its equivalent in Germany at the Max Planck Society, one of the foremost research societies in Europe and world-wide. To our great surprise and extreme delight, at our joint BrisSynBio-MaxSynbio meeting in 2018, our
German friends and Max Planck directors announced the invitation by the Max Planck Society to propose a Max Planck Centre in Bristol. This was an incredible recognition of our leadership and we went to work. We placed our bid and in a highly competitive process we secured the Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology. This was a veritable scoop Max Planck Centres exist at renowned institutions including Harward, Princeton, RIKEN and the likes, and to have Bristol enter this league makes us enormously proud and obliges us to deliver the very best and most exciting science we can.

Minimal biology explores the interface between physics and the life sciences and asks the question – what makes matter come alive? Minimal biology is exciting because it breaks down boundaries and silo thinking – it is free roaming over all the disciplines in the sciences and uniquely combines them. In synthetic biology, we learned how to apply engineering principles to create life-like processes from defined individual parts. This was all carbon based. And now we are moving away from this. In Minimal biology, we are completely open to radical new approaches, radically new ideas where we ask – does it have to be carbon? Can it be also any other kind of materials, maybe inorganic materials? We use whatever we have at our disposal – in chemistry, biology and physics. If we have defined parameters, and we can make model systems which we can completely control because we had built them from defined parts – then we can
develop better diagnostic methods, better therapeutics and better models to test therapies and drugs we are developing.

The Max Planck Centre comprises three Bristol based directors and three directors at Max Planck Institutes in Germany, each of us with complementary skill sets and scientific backgrounds. We innovate by exploiting the synergies at the interfaces of our scientific expertise where the sky’s the limit. We are all established and if you may say successful scientists in our disciplines – the Max Planck Centre gives us the possibility to move way out of our comfort zones to do new and exciting things. And this is what great science is all about. Our innovations in the Max Planck Centre already and very concretely help shape our present and hopefully our future.

When the COVID crisis broke, during the first hard lock-down, almost everything in Bristol and the UK Shut down including the University. Only a handful of scientists and clinicians, continued to work trying to do what they could to counter the pandemic.

The Max Planck Centre continued operations to supply the clinicians with the reagents they needed including the major antigen of SARS- CoV-2, the Spike. This is the protein on the virus surface which SARS-CoV-2 uses to attach and infect our cells. We quality controlled the Spike with cryo-electron microscopy, a powerful technique to image the ultrastructure of a sample at near atomic resolution. When we peered into the Spike, we discovered a druggable pocket – and within the pocket a potent drug ! This fortuitous discovery revealed a weak spot in the virus which could be used to abolish its infectivity. We published a paper in Science late 2020. We remain astonished by the wide resonance it received. Based on this discovery we founded Halo Therapeutics Ltd, a start- up developing pan-coronavirus antivirals to combat the present – and future – outbreaks. We assembled a top team of experts and Halo is right now moving to phase II clinical trials with its antiviral that could stop SARs-CoV-2 in its tracks.

"The Max Planck Centre gives us the possibility to move way out of our comfort zones to do new and exciting things. And this is what great science is all about.”

- Professor Imre Berger, Founding & Managing Director, Max Planck Centre (Bristol)

Professor Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel, Co-Founder and CTO and Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Bristol

Founded in December 2020 and based in Bristol, UK, our vision is to roll out a class of small molecule pan-coronavirus therapeutics targeting the central axis of disease pathology: lipid regulation.

There is no home therapeutic treatment for COVID-19 patients, and similarly no prophylactic treatment for at-risk patients (elderly, disease preconditions, track and trace “proximity positive” individuals, family members of positive cases).

Our vision is to solve this urgent unmet medical need by providing safe pan coronavirus antivirals which can be applied by COVID-19 patients by themselves, at home.

We recently published in Science Magazine the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein is driven to non-infectious, locked conformation by nanomolar concentrations of free fatty acid.

"Our vision is that at the first sign of the disease, whether you come into contact with someone who has COVID-19 or you have early symptoms, you would self-medicate at home to stop the virus in its tracks and prevent you from getting ill.”

- — Professor Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel, Co-Founder and CTO and Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Bristol.


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