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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > The intuition of Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann
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image image image Date published: 18/12/2001
  image The intuition of Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann

 

RTD info 32

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  For the past 25 years, Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann has been at the forefront of the fight against cancer and AIDS. Her tenacity and scientific perspicacity today place her among the leading figures in the world of biochemistry. After several years in fundamental research - of which she holds the title special professor at Frankfurt University - this virologist now heads research projects on anti-infectives at the Bayer group.
   
     
   

The Bayer pharmaceutical research centre at Varresbeck, in a green area of Wuppertal just outside Düsseldorf, is bathed in the light of an endless Indian summer. During this school holiday period which she devotes to her son Jens, 13, Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann kindly agreed to call into her office for this interview. Reconciling family and working life is a constant challenge for this hyperactive woman of science, but one that she is committed to meeting.

'At the age of 18 I first thought of medicine, but the idea of possibly making a mistake as a doctor caused me to look at chemistry. Finally, I returned to medicine by way of research,' she immediately explains. Her elder sister had preferred physics, making two 'women of science' in a family of engineers, architects and bankers. After her doctorate at Münster University, Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann already knew that, of all scientific fields, biology most fascinated her. She therefore decided to study virology at Giessen University. From Giessen she moved to Cornell University at Ithaca (New York) where she became familiar with the fundamentals of biochemistry.

After completing her doctorate, she decided to enter cancer research. 'More than anything else, I wanted to explore and understand what can happen in a living cell when its functioning deteriorates.' The subject of her first project was the Rous sarcoma virus, a retrovirus involved in the pathogenesis of a specific cancer affecting poultry. She analysed the SRC oncogenous gene as well as its product, the pp60 v-SRC protein, one of the factors responsible for malignant mutations. At the end of the 1970s, it was not at all clear that retroviruses were pathogenic and when esteemed colleagues advised her not to waste her time pursuing this avenue, she preferred - rightly as it proved - to follow her intuition. 'For me, retroviruses were a model in the sense that they permit an excellent comparison between healthy and diseased cells.'

A first makeshift laboratory

In the 1980s, she turned to virological research on AIDS. At the invitation of her colleague Eilke Helm she met patients being treated at the Frankfurt university clinic. 'In the light of such different manifestations of a same pathology, I thought that more than one virus was involved.' Her intuition proved right. Her work began on the basis of six samples of contaminated blood. After having first got rid of the mouse cages, she set up a makeshift laboratory in the cellar of the Georg Speyer Haus in Frankfurt, previously used for animal experimentation. At first the laboratory employed just three people with an annual budget of no more than 10 500 euro. Five years later she has turned it into a centre of excellence for AIDS research with 90 highly qualified staff. 'This was also made possible by the development and sale of patents for HIV tests,' she explains.

After these years spent on fundamental research, in 1994 Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann was appointed head of the Bayer group's department of research into anti-infectives, where she manages a budget of 17.5 million euro. 'The transformation of a chemical substance into a medicine is a process which has always fascinated me,' she explains.

What does a pot of yoghurt contain?

At the age of 52, Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann is full of dynamism and is concerned about young people's lack of interest in science. She does not believe it is enough to try to work out how to reorganise European universities: an in-depth study of the content of school programmes is her priority. 'Chemistry experiments and computers should replace Goethe and Schiller in primary school… Our children are being confronted with the world of technology at an increasingly early age, which is why it would be a good thing for them to learn how to use that technology as soon as possible. Teachers should introduce them to the joys of scientific discovery.' An example? As part of a German pilot project, children are told to compare diet yoghurt with ordinary yoghurt, and to determine what differentiates them. They discover that a sweetener is present in diet yoghurt, which they then isolate and study. 'Young pupils suddenly see chemistry from a new angle and the sciences become fascinating.'

Thinking about Europe

A visiting professor to Harvard, Helga remains loyal to Europe and is one of the team of 45 researchers who sit on the European Research Advisory Board (EURAB) set up by European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. Among the questions studied by the EURAB is the 'brain-drain'. 'Four of my best students went to the United States and have not come back. We need more funds for return grants to motivate the best brains to return to Europe.'
EURAB members are also looking at the balance between aid for industry and fundamental research. 'It is important for university professors to be more open to the needs of the economy. I have long been criticised for working with industry,' admits Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann. 'Too many scientists are essentially concerned with their publications and too little with registering patents. In Europe, it is only recently that specialised bodies have got together with researchers to look at how to patent their discoveries. The income generated by patents makes it possible to offer good working conditions, as is the case in the United States.'

She is also convinced of the need for mobility for young people in Europe. 'It is crucial to encourage young graduates to work in other countries.' She sees the doubling of European funds devoted to the mobility of scientists, as announced under the new framework programme (2002-2006), as 'a step in the right direction'.

Old boys network

In the corridor outside her office, a poster entitled Women in Science: Careers Past, Present and Future announces an upcoming congress in Cologne, at which Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann will be speaking of her experiences. 'The place of women in the world of science is far from comfortable and they are not given an easy ride.' But a glance at her CV nevertheless shows an illustrious career. 'I have been able to successfully complete everything I started,' she acknowledges. 'But it is absurd that more than half of our country's women graduates stay at home,' she continues. 'In Germany, the most able do not always get the best positions and the old boys network is particularly strong in the world of medicine.' At Bayer she is a member of the 'Equal Opportunities' Circle and is actively involved in the campaign to reinforce the place of women in research, in particular as vice president of the Union of German Chemists (Vereinigung Deutscher Chemiker).

Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann has invited all her male colleagues who sit on the board of directors of this giant of the pharmaceutical industry (Bayer ranks 15th in the world) to attend the Cologne congress. 'We will see if any of these gentlemen cares to visit us…'

 

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Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann: 'It is important for university professors to be more open to the needs of the economy. I have long been criticised for working with industry.'

Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann: 'It is important for university professors to be more open to the needs of the economy. I have long been criticised for working with industry.'

 


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