“I’m open-minded about interdisciplinary research and working with industry”
Professor Waldmann, you are a chemist, but your research focuses on biological and medical topics. Following your Habilitation, you made a conscious decision not to pursue a career in industry, but on the other hand you have long worked intensively with pharmaceutical and chemical companies. Is that not a contradiction?
At first glance this may appear so. And probably some scientists still feel that way. Several years ago it was unthinkable for many colleagues in chemistry to cross the boundaries of other disciplines in their own research. Fortunately, there has been a change in this mindset.
How were these reservations expressed?
For example, in the comments I heard from colleagues in chemistry, when in 1999 I was deciding to leave the Organic Chemistry Department at the University of Karlsruhe to go to the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology in Dortmund. Some of them asked me in all seriousness: Do you want to become a slave of the biologists?
How do you explain this?
Underlying this is probably the notion or concern that when chemists collaborate with biologists they become more or less service providers or helping hands who merely perform syntheses and analyses for other people and get scientifically sidelined. There are similar qualms about working in joint research projects with pharmaceutical firms. However, all participants can benefit from such collaborations.
In what way?
Of course, as a chemist you must make sure that you are and remain recognizable as such in interdisciplinary projects. But in my experience, it is tremendously inspiring to be among colleagues not only from my own discipline, but also from other fields – biologists, biochemists, and biophysicists – and thus to gain new inspiration.
Still, it does make a difference whether you are working with other basic scientists or with industry.
That’s true. Scientists working in pharmaceutical or chemical companies are confronted with very different constraints. They are partly under massive pressure because they have to deliver results within a short time and work within complex hierarchies. However, I can adapt easily to people and don’t have any qualms about research contacts with industry. Over time I have learned to appreciate these researchers and to accept that they have their own imperatives. Of course, in such collaborations you have to make sure that the fundamental resonance is harmonious.
What do you mean with “fundamental resonance”?
First of all, the driving force must be the common scientific interest. Once a collaboration with industry is reduced to money, it will not work. Our projects with pharmaceutical companies are not commissioned research as is the case of clinical trials to test new drugs on patients, which are designed exclusively and funded by the pharmaceutical companies. For us the focus is on the common search for drug candidates and new scientific principles that will provide novel approaches to targeted intervention into disease processes. Equally important is: clear rules. These must be established right from the beginning.
What rules do you mean?
For example, it is important to determine who may publish which results and when they are allowed to do so. Pharmaceutical companies generally tend to keep important results under cover as long as possible. Basic scientists, on the other hand, want to publish their findings quickly. We usually make it a condition that we can publish new results within four months. The key to any collaboration, however, is to build a trustful relationship with the people involved. Otherwise it doesn’t work.
Have you ever had a bad experience?
Yes, of course. This is inevitable in the long run. There are always honest and dishonest people. Over time you learn to guard against unfair tricks. Moreover, bad cooperative projects soon come to a quick end. If people don’t play by the rules, then we simply don’t ever work with them again. But generally speaking, cooperative projects with industry have worked out very well for me. Basically, it was due to a pharmaceutical company that I took the right path in research at the right time in the direction of biology.
How did this come about?
After my Habilitation I was looking for a new and exciting topic. One day a company asked me if we could collaborate to selectively synthesize molecules to influence and possibly inactivate the protein Ras. The topic was new and hot at the time. A few years earlier, Ras had been discovered as the first human oncogene. A discovery that was groundbreaking for cancer research because it has fundamentally transformed the understanding of the causes of carcinogenesis. And then something happened that inspires me to this day: When I come across a new topic that interests me, I delve into it with almost childlike curiosity and read until I learn everything I want to know about it. Then there are moments when I think: Wow! Just look at what all there is to be discovered. But in this case it was even more. It struck me like a thunderbolt – no one in chemistry was studying this topic and in this field. So I came across Alfred Wittinghofer, who is one of the pioneers of Ras research and was already working here at the Institute. And I had the idea to collaborate with him. The only problem was that such an idea was very unusual if you weren’t working in the research field yourself.
How did you solve this problem?
I just thought, go ask him. Go ahead and dare to do it! And he agreed. When the first success came I thought I could fly. Big time! Suddenly a vast new field opened up for me to explore and conquer. Later on one of the most exciting discoveries in which we could participate so far evolved from this: the deciphering of the regulation of the dynamic Ras cycle, originally proposed by Philippe Bastiaens and then unravelled in close collaboration with him and Alfred Wittinghofer, which represented the culmination of a 20-year research program on Ras proteins.