“Sigma receptors are pretty unusual!”

A lab visit to Prof. Bernhard Wünsch
Medicinal Chemist Prof. Bernhard Wünsch is a CiM group leader at the Institute of Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry.
© Dziemba

Prof. Wünsch, what scientific topic are you working on right now?

We’re developing so-called receptor ligands. Such chemical compounds can activate or block receptors in the cell membrane and are termed agonists and antagonists, respectively. Activation or blocking of a receptor triggers a variety of reactions in the cell. We are particular interested in kappa, sigma and NMDA receptors. These receptors play a crucial role in various diseases of the central nervous system – for example, depressions, psychoses, neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis or other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Our research is driven by the receptors themselves and their interactions with small molecules. We analyse them in detail, try to activate or block them, and investigate the effects on the development of various diseases.

What characterizes you personally as a scientist?

Pharmacy fascinates me every single day. It combines chemistry, biology and medicine with the aim to improving treatments of patients. Our substances aren’t prepared for the waste – in the best case, they’re used to treat patients. I also enjoy teaching. My aim is not only to convey knowledge to the young people but also to get them enthusiastic for Pharmacy, in particular Medicinal Chemistry.

What’s your great aim as a scientist?

I want to better understand the enigmatic sigma receptors. These receptors are pretty unusual! We’ve been working for a long time on these receptors – but there are still a lot of secrets which are not solved so far. A further dream of mine is to set up a Research Training Group, ideally at the interface between Medicine and Medicinal Chemistry. Such a collaborative program would not only support junior researchers, but also promote the translation process from laboratory work to experiments on animals.

What’s your favourite research “toy”– and what can it do?

I like playing around with models of molecules. These little plastic sticks allow the visualization of the stereochemistry – in other words, the three-dimensional structure of a molecule. I also use computer programmes to visualize molecules, of course. However, the plastic model can be hold in the hands, and turned around. So that I can look on it from all sides. Moreover, bonds can be broken and new bonds can be formed easily. Such plastic models allow to define, where new substituents can be attached in a useful manner.

Can you remember your happiest moment as a scientist?

My first habilitand, Dr. Ralph Holl, was recently appointed to a professorship at the University of Hamburg. It is very difficult to find a position as professor in Pharmacy. There are only 23 universities with Pharmacy including the subject Medicinal Chemistry in Germany. That means only a few positions become vacant each year. On top of that, a young scientist has only twelve years as a public employee to find a position as professor according to the new law on Fixed-Term Contracts. So I’m really happy that Prof. Dr. Ralph Holl received the position as professor in time.

Which scientific phenomenon still regularly fascinates you today?

I find microelectronics fascinating. How is it possible to store so much information on such a small chip? Additionally, I am very interested in neurodegenerative processes. Basic research usually leads to the question: what came first – the chicken or the egg?