The biologist Sara Montagner has won the Marie Heim-Vögtlin Prize 2018 for her discovery about the epigenetic modifications of DNA which are essential for the function of mast cells.
Epigenetic modifications allow mast cells to function normally, which Montagner has been able to demonstrate by epigenetic modifications in mice.
Mast cells are white blood cells and are an important part of the immune system. They secrete substances such as histamine to fight pathogens in the body. Allgeric reactions are caused by mast cells overreacting.
What are epigenetic modifications?
Epigenetic modifications are modifications of DNA. In Montagner’s research, the epigenetic modifications used modified the DNA without rearranging its building blocks. She and her colleagues showed that the ablation of the enzymes TET2 and DNMT3A changed the modifications of mast cells.
The research found that the missing enzymes made the mast cells increase in proliferation and secrete excessive mediators to trigger reactions in the immune system. This reaction showed the extent that the modifications influence the physiology of mast cells.
Sara Montagner and the Marie Heim-Vögtlin prize
The prize is awarded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and has been ongoing for 25 years. It is named after Heim-Vögtlin, the first female medical student at the University of Zurich who ran her own gynaecological practice alongside looking after her two children. The prize is granted to outstanding women researchers who have achieved an outstanding research development after reducing or interrupting their research activities to balance their family commitments.
Montagner was able to discover the relationship between modifications and functioning mast cells alongside looking after her young daughter, and was supported by an SNSF grant. The Marie Heim-Vögtlin Prize will be presented to her at the award ceremony in Bellinzona, Switzerland on 29 November 2018. Montagner currently holds a research position at healthcare company Novartis in Basel, Switzerland.