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2014 Winner: Marc H. Dahlke

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"In Search of the Holy Grail"

Marc H. Dahlke, M.D., Ph.D., is the second recipient of the prestigious STEM CELLS Translational Medicine Young Investigator’s Award. Launched in 2013, this award fosters advancements in the field of stem cells and regenerative medicine by honoring a young researcher who is principle author of an article published in SCTM over the course of a year that is deemed to have the most impact and to push the boundaries of novel and insightful research.

Dr. Dahlke is a lecturer for experimental surgery at Regensburg University (Germany) and an attending surgeon at Regensburg University Medical Center. He was lead author of the paper “Heart Grafts Tolerized Through Third-Party Multipotent Adult Progenitor Cells Can Be Retransplanted to Secondary Hosts With No Immunosuppression” that appeared in SCTM’s August 2013 issue.

It describes the discovery of a universal stem cell product that not only seems to increase the long-term survival of organ transplants in instances when the donor is not related to the recipient, but also retains that immunological privileged state when the organ is then transplanted into yet another unrelated recipient.

Dr. Dahlke received both his M.D. (in 2002) and his Ph.D. (2004) from Hannover Medical School where he was enrolled in the program for molecular medicine. He went on to receive specialty training in surgery as a fellow at the University of Sydney (Australia) and at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York (US).

Currently, Dr. Dahlke’s lab in Regensburg focuses on the immunobiology of mesenchymal stem cells and the use of stem cell products for clinical application in solid organ transplantation and other indications. His group publishes regularly in this field, and Dr. Dahlke is the principal investigator of the first phase I study applying a mesenchymal stem cell product to liver transplant recipients. He also is the founder of the MiSOT network (www.misot.eu), which aims to bring together academic and commercial research with the goal of bringing mesenchymal stem cell therapies to the transplantation clinic, and serves as a reviewer for numerous journals in the immunology field.

Click here to read the best papers from our 2014 Young Investigators.


Dr. Dahlke recently shared his views on his groundbreaking study and on the stem cell field in general with SCTM.

SCTM: What hypothesis were you testing in the research described in your award-winning paper?

MD: Immunosuppression after solid organ transplantation is a significant clinical problem: On the one hand we aim to suppress the recipient immune system so that it does not reject the transplanted organ; on the other hand we also want to keep the organ recipient’s immune response normal so that the usual infections that we encounter in everyday life (and precancerous cells) can be controlled.

This is somewhat contradictory and new clever approaches to the problem are needed. Stem cell therapy is one of those.

SCTM: Can you explain why investigating this hypothesis is important to stem cell research?

MD: Clinical translation of stem cell therapies is in its infancy in most areas. Using adult stem cells to modulate immune responses is one of the most promising indications in my opinion. Controlling the rejection of solid organ allografts [where the transplanted organ is donated by someone other than the patient] might well be among the first really useful applications of stem cell therapy.

SCTM: What approach did you use to test your hypothesis?

MD: We used an established rat model of allograft rejection and tested a cell product in this model corresponding to a product that is already in clinical use. We have seen in our experimentation that, at least in the rat system, these cells have been very efficacious for tolerance induction. We also detail some of the immunobiological mechanisms behind this effect.

SCTM: Was there a specific methodological technique important to these studies?

MD: Rat organ transplantation is technically not as trivial as one might imagine. In addition, we were lucky to be able to use the commercial product that now allows direct clinical translation.

SCTM: What does your study mean for stem cell biology and its application?

MD: With the preclinical data published in SCTM in this paper in the background, we have now successfully established a phase I study for testing the approach in humans. The first two recipients have been successfully treated in the last year.

SCTM: What's the best scenario that you would like to see come out of your study?

MD: Not to speak about true tolerance induction, the holy grail of transplant medicine, it would be a huge success if we could reduce the amount of immunosuppression for some patients.

SCTM: Let’s turn the spotlight on you for a bit. Why did you choose to go into stem cell research?

MD: I am a surgeon by training and have always followed a path that combines basic research with clinical work since I believe that this has the potential to bring real therapies to real patients in the most effective pattern. During my Ph.D. work I came into contact with translational immunology and I stayed.

SCTM: Do you think the combination of medical doctor and scientific researcher brings insight to the translational aspect of your research work?

MD: Yes, absolutely. Teamwork is the key to success. My team consists of excellent medical doctors and basic researchers. I try to be the link between both groups.

SCTM: Tell us about your training and any mentors who might have influenced you and what motivates you today. 

MD: Doing basic science and medical training in parallel is impossible, so you need to organize yourself very well to achieve one and the other in subsequent cycles. I had the advantage to start in an MD/PhD program at Hannover Medical School and then found good mentors in fellowships at the University of Sydney, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and my current location, the Medical Center of Regensburg University.

SCTM: What is your current position?

MD: I am a professor of experimental surgery and an attending surgeon at Regensburg University Medical center, a position that allows me to divide my time between research and patient care in a very balanced way.  

SCTM: Would you like to tell us about MiSOT and how consortiums such as this might advance regenerative medicine?

MD: MiSOT is a great group that we founded in 2008. It is a loose summary of around 80 researchers in Europe and some in the U.S. who meet on a regular basis. The group is very focused (MiSOT=MSC in solid organ transplantation) and the meetings have been some of the most productive that I have been part of in recent years. I think that it is most important that the interchange is informal and that the group has remained at its constant size.

SCTM: Is there anything else that you think is important to bring up about your paper, your work and what you think should happen next?

MD: I believe that clinical translation of stem cell research needs to be very well thought through and must happen in very organized short steps. Nobody should wait for mind-blowing breakthroughs. This will mislead the public and be counterproductive for the development of the whole field.

I am convinced that we can achieve practice-changing developments for many indications. But this will take time and it is going to be costly. 

SCTM: Why did you select STEM CELLS Translational Medicine to publish your paper?

MD: The journal targets exactly what I do: translating stem cell science into medicine.

SCTM: How do you think the Young Investigator Award might affect your career?

MD: It is certainly a great honor, thankfully received.