05/03/2023 | BioRegio STERN Management GmbH | Press

“If I think something is right, then I do it”

BioGraphy: Prof. Hans-Georg Rammensee


(Stuttgart/Tübingen) – Prof. Hans-Georg Rammensee has spent decades researching immunology and was recently elected a member of Leopoldina, the German National Academy of Sciences, for his work. He is studying the possibility of immunising the body against all types of cancer, is a pioneer in mRNA vaccines and garnered a great deal of attention three years ago when he tested a COVID-19 vaccine that he had developed – on himself. Companies such as CureVac, Immatics, Prime Vector, Atriva and Synimmune regard him as a guiding light. His Department of Immunology in the Interfaculty Institute of Cell Biology at the University of Tübingen is a unique talent factory that has produced numerous start-ups. The latest company co-founded by him is the recently launched ViferaXS GmbH. All the same, the 70-year-old is far from satisfied.

Professor Rammensee holding the BioRegio STERN Logo in his hands and stands in the lab

Prof. Hans-Georg Rammensee, scientist and immunologist at Tübingen University

copyright: Andreas Körner/BioRegio STERN Management GmbH

Clad in safety gear, he wields his chainsaw so confidently that you would never expect this man ever has anything to do with the much more delicate instruments found in high-tech laboratories. However, when he is in the lab, Prof. Hans-Georg Rammensee is fighting malignant diseases. “When I’ve had enough of the committeetype work that is another side to what I do, but not one that appeals to me, I come out to the woods to decompress,” explains the researcher. He likes people to be succinct and get straight to the point – just like he does. His aim in life can also be summed up pretty neatly: Prof. Rammensee is developing a vaccine against cancer – every cancer.

His mission began half a century ago, when he was undertaking his non-military national service at Tübingen University Hospital as a 20-year-old. “I saw cancer patients die, including young people, and I got a sense of the helplessness that the doctors felt.” Instead of studying mechanical engineering, as he had planned, he decided to go into cancer research. “I saw that medicine was unable to do much and that is why I wanted to research the scientific basis on which cancer develops.” One way he financed his biology studies was by working night shifts on the cancer ward, and he learned about something as a student that has stayed with him all his life – killer cells. “I found out that there are these T cells in the immune system that can kill cells that are infected with a virus,” recalls Prof. Rammensee. “That was something very new at the time. Rolf Zinkernagel and Peter Doherty, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine, had only just discovered how the immune system identifies virus-ridden cells. If these T cells can kill virus-infected cells, I thought, perhaps they can do the same to cancer cells?”

From that moment on, Prof. Rammensee dedicated himself entirely to immunology and spent the decades that followed developing his innovative approach of immunotherapy as a treatment for cancer. “In 1976, the idea was considered completely absurd and I was an oddity. Not even my doctoral supervisor, the immunogeneticist Jan Klein, believed it could work.” Nonetheless, Klein allowed “pigheaded” Rammensee to test out his hypotheses in his department at the Max Planck Institute for Biology in Tübingen. Rammensee and his team biochemically isolated peptides from HLA molecules because there was a suspicion that these included peptides that are recognised by T cells. His theory was that these peptides could be from normal cellular structures – or from cancer-specific antigens. The T cells recognise changes in the peptides that are caused by tumour diseases, for example. Over the years that followed, Prof. Rammensee and his team developed a procedure that can be used to precisely determine the virus and tumour cell peptide antigens recognised by the T cells. This can be used as a basis for developing personalised immunotherapy for cancer patients that activates the immune system and destroys the tumour cells.

Back in the 19th century, the noted physician and co-developer of chemotherapy Paul Ehrlich posited that the immune system may be able to do something to attack cancer, but was unable to make a real breakthrough with this hypothesis. That meant that up until the late 1980s there was barely anyone in the established scientific community willing to support Prof. Rammensee’s approach. “However, I felt it could work, and if nobody was doing it and I thought it was right, I’d do it myself.” This selfconfidence is still helping him stick to his aims today, even though they have not been as “easy” to achieve as he had hoped: “At the time, I estimated it would take 20 to 30 years and then we’d have the vaccine. However, it has been much more complex than I thought and, unfortunately, there have been a lot of setbacks, too.”

It shows great stamina – and a high tolerance for frustration – that he nevertheless went on riding his bicycle to Morgenstelle every morning to manage the Immunology department at the University of Tübingen’s Interfaculty Institute of Cell Biology, teach young scientists and also set up a string of companies. “My goal is the same as it has been for many years. I am trying to make personalised cancer vaccines work. But I’m still not where I’d like to be.” There are two clinical studies currently underway that are making Prof. Rammensee cautiously optimistic. “We are seeing very strong immune responses, triggered very quickly, but further studies are needed before we can say whether these are now effective against cancer.”

Profie picture of Prof. Rammensee

BioGraphy series: Prof. Hans-Georg Rammensee interviewed by BioRegio STERN Management GmbH.

Copyright: Andreas Körner/BioRegio STERN Management GmbH

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