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Emmy Noether Junior Research Grant awarded to Stem Cell Researcher Dr. Maria Carolina Florian

Universität Ulm

Epigenetic architecture of stem cells in sight

Stem cells are the "jack of all trades" of the body, which can transform themselves into different tissues and so repair defects. Dr. Maria Carolina Florian deals with these "mechanics" - and in particular with the aging of hematopoietic stem cells and stem cells of the skin. Now the scientist, who does research in the Institute of Molecular Medicine at Ulm University, has been promoted as part of the Emmy Noether Program of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and receives a junior group.

With the lead of an Emmy Noether junior research group, excellent young researchers are supported on their way to a professorship and guided towards scientific independence. The 36-year-old Maria Carolina Florian, who studied pharmaceutical biotechnology in Milan where she received her doctorate, has already made a name for herself as a stem cell expert: In the renowned journal "Nature" she was able to show, for example, that, triggered by a specific protein substance, blood-forming stem cells change to another signal transmission system during the aging process. By blocking the protein substance, however, the stem cells can be rejuvenated, so that they can once again focus on their "reparation job".

In the next five years - Florian will receive a total of 1.8 million euros - she wants to further sharpen her academic profile. Her new project is about epigenetic changes in the course of stem cell aging that appear to play a central role. The term epigenetics refers to a form of gene regulation by external factors. Unlike the mutation, however, the genetic material does not change permanently. Rather, individual genes are switched on and off by the detachment or attachment of chemical groups. Should the epigenetic signature of the hematopoietic stem cell change during the aging process, it may also affect the stem cell function and division. Corresponding molecular mechanisms - especially the establishment and maintenance of epigenetic signature – is what Maria Carolina Florian plans to decipher. With an aging society, it is by no means pure basic research: "There are numerous diseases associated with stem cell aging, such as cancer, anemia or an impaired immune system," says the Italian-born, who has been researching in Ulm since 2009, with confidence.

The mother of two considers Ulm University "the best place for stem cell and aging research in Germany" and praises the top-class cooperation partners, including, of course, the renowned stem cell researcher Professor Hartmut Geiger, Head of the Institute of Molecular Medicine, as well as the laboratory infrastructure. Since epigenetic stem cell research is technically extremely challenging, Florian is also working with experts from the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg (DKFZ), the University of Munich (LMU) and Cincinnati Children's Hospital (USA). Always with the aim to reveal the epigenetic architecture of hematopoietic stem cells and stopping the aging process.
"We are very pleased that Ms. Florian has decided to continue her research here in Ulm. This is also proof of the sustainability and the innovative potential which distinguishes stem cell research in Ulm. We will therefore do everything in order to keep Ms. Florian in Ulm on a long-term basis,” says Professor Hartmut Geiger.

Original article in German by: Annika Bingmann 

Dr. Maria Carolina Florian