Press release 2019/094 from

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation awards Professor Jens Meiler a prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Professorship in Berlin this Thursday (9 May). The 44-year-old is one of the world’s most distinguished researchers in the field of computer-aided drug discovery. He uses digital simulations and artificial intelligence to model proteins that form promising starting points for a large number of drugs. From January 2020, he will be contributing his expertise to the Pharmaceutical Chemistry team at Leipzig University’s Faculty of Medicine.

Prof. Dr. Jens Meiler

Professor Jens Meiler. Photo: Christian Hüller

Worth five million euros, the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship is Germany’s most visible research prize. Eight of these prizes will be awarded on Thursday evening by the Federal Minister of Education and Research, Anja Karliczek, and the President of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Professor Hans-Christian Pape. The foundation has been awarding prizes to world-leading international researchers since 2008. The award enables German universities to offer internationally competitive conditions for innovative research.

A figurehead at the crossroads of medicine, life sciences and computational biology
With Professor Jens Meiler, Leipzig University has succeeded in establishing Germany’s first ever professorship for pharmaceutical chemistry within a medical faculty. Professor Meiler will set up a new Institute for Drug Development. This will test and produce computer-designed molecules using a rational design approach. The aim is to further dovetail basic biomedical research at Leipzig University with applied research at the Faculty of Medicine. Rector Professor Beate Schücking paid tribute to the scientist: “Jens Meiler will bring pharmacy, the life sciences, computer science and medicine closer together at our university. He will be a front runner in this interdisciplinary field, facilitating outstanding research in the area of drug development. At the same time, he will enable the University to further enhance its international visibility in the life sciences.” Following the philosopher Professor James Conant and the classical philologist and computer scientist Professor Gregory Ralph Crane, Meiler is now the third Humboldt Professor to be appointed to the University. “It goes without saying that our students will benefit from this. In the future, they will have the opportunity to be involved at the forefront of research during their studies – whether in lectures or internships,” added the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Professor Christoph Josten.

Computer algorithms calculate the structure of proteins for precision drug development
Jens Meiler is particularly interested in the development of computer algorithms that can not only accelerate the development of active substances, but also contribute to personalized medicine. To this end, Meiler combines three-dimensional structural models with methods of machine learning, such as deep neural networks. For example, he uses computers to simulate the structure of receptors, which are promising starting points for drugs. The receptors are located on the cell surface, playing an important role in communication between cells and their environment. A detailed understanding of the structure of these receptors helps in the development of new drugs – for example to combat cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. However, the structure and dynamics of these receptors with drugs is highly complex. Meiler’s algorithms help to determine the most probable structure and thus create a detailed model. This model acts like a blueprint: it helps researchers to design drug candidates that can interact in the best way possible with the receptor. Thus, his algorithms then help to design likely active substances in the computer before synthesising them in the laboratory.

Profile of Professor Jens Meiler

Jens Meiler studied chemistry at Leipzig University, received his doctorate from the University of Frankfurt and then moved to the University of Washington in Seattle as a postdoctoral fellow. Since 2005 he has been Professor of Chemistry, Pharmacology and Biomedical Informatics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, US. In 2016, Professor Meiler was a visiting scholar at Leipzig University and conducted research with scientists from various disciplines. In 2015, he received the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award of the Humboldt Foundation. In 2017, he was elected to the Saxon Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Leipzig.

Jens Meiler is a leading player in the profile area of “Molecular and Cellular Communication in Therapy and Diagnostic”. Leipzig University has dedicated substantial effort and resources into establishing and developing this research focus by appointing colleagues with high reputation in the field of basic research on G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). Adding Jens Meiler to this team will shape the discipline beyond Leipzig Universities immediate field of work. This will allow Leipzig University to become a center for GPCR research with strong collaborations to Humboldt University Berlin.

A video portrait of Professor Jens Meiler and his research activities can be found on the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation website.

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