Celebrating science on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall

This post about the Falling Walls Science Summit 2021 highlights the role of the life sciences in the current research landscape and reminds us that for these breakthroughs to keep happening – the falling walls – bringing together thinkers from different disciplines and backgrounds is essential.
Celebrating science on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall
The Falling Walls 2022 Call for Nominations is open. Support the bright minds behind the latest breakthroughs and outstanding science projects by nominating those who are finding solutions to the key challenges of our time. Please help spread the call, too!

The Falling Walls Foundation is a global hub connecting science, business and society. Every year at the beginning of November, the Foundation hosts the Falling Walls Science Summit, a leading international, interdisciplinary and intersectoral forum for scientific breakthroughs and science dialogue that culminates on 9th November, the anniversary of the peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall. As a vessel for the world-changing spirit of 1989 in and beyond Berlin, the Foundation is on a relentless pursuit to find out: Which are the next walls to fall in science and society?

Özlem Türeci giving her Breakthrough of the Year talk on “Combating the pandemic: breaking the wall to mRNA vaccines”.
Breakthrough of the Year talk on “Combating the pandemic: breaking the wall to mRNA vaccines”, from Özlem Türeci.

The aim is both to highlight different scientific disciplines, including the life sciences, and to promote interdisciplinary exchange. While the 2020 event was held digitally, this year the Falling Walls team was fortunate to reunite the international science community in Berlin again. Established as well as emerging scientists convened from the 7th to 9th November 2021, showcasing and discussing impressive findings, especially in the life sciences and in medical research. This table highlights some of the most remarkable talks and panels in the field (follow the link to the recorded talk to learn more about the breakthrough):

Life Sciences at the Falling Walls Science Summit 2021

Covid-19 research

  • Özlem Türeci presented how the first mRNA vaccine got developed, how the original mission of this research decades ago was to fight cancer, and what the “mRNA toolbox” holds ready for the future of combating diseases.
  • Patrick Cramer visualized how the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 replicates its RNA genome, and how this finding will help stop the pandemic.
  • Florian Ingo Schmitt presented a SARS-CoV-2 therapy that relies on nanobodies – antibody fragments produced by all camelids like alpacas and llamas.

More medical breakthroughs

  • Cynthia Sharma and Chase Beisel developed a new CRISPR diagnostic method that can detect many biomarkers at once.
  • Heiko Lickert presented regenerative approaches to treating diabetes that protect or regenerate functional ß-cell mass and stop disease progression.
  • Jeremy Herren introduced a symbiotic microbe as an effective and sustainable novel control tool for malaria.
  • Emerging Talent Breakthrough Ana Montalban-Arques pitched a novel approach that applies bacteria as a stand-alone therapy for colon cancer, a therapeutic approach that shows striking efficacy of bacteria as monotherapy.

About basic and applied research in the field of life sciences

  • At the Plenary Table Translating Science into Medical Application, Uğur Şahin, Christoph Huber, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Maria Leptin, Oscar-Werner Reif, and Mariette Dichristina discussed the importance of basic as well as applied research, and what is needed to translate novel medical breakthroughs – which we nowadays experience at unprecedented speed – effectively into market-ready applications and therapeutics.
  • Valentina Cappelletti presented a novel method of protein analytics to better understand how living systems work.
  • Glyphic Biotechnologies, the winning Science Start-up in the category Health Solutions, is a platform dedicated to decoding the human proteome, enabling the development of novel therapeutics and diagnostics and, ultimately, a deeper understanding of human biology.

The Science Breakthrough of the Year is awarded in ten categories

Besides the Life Sciences, scientists from around the world are invited to contribute their research in a further nine categories: Physical Sciences, Engineering and Technology, Social Sciences and Humanities, Art and Science, Future Learning, Science and Innovation Management, Emerging Talents (Falling Walls Lab), Science Start-ups (Falling Walls Venture), and Science Engagement (Falling Walls Engage).

In the course of the selection process, the jury chooses one research project per category as the Science Breakthrough of the Year. The Engineering and Technology Breakthroughs in 2020 and 2021 in particular have both added value to medical research, highly complementing the Life Sciences category: Francesca Santoro by developing a biohybrid synapse through the coupling of an artificial neuron and biological neuronal cells; and Metin Sitti by creating a tiny robot that can be used for non-invasive, precise, and safe medical diagnosis and treatment.

But the other categories also deal with a myriad of challenges and opportunities within the life sciences – as the table above shows. The 2021 Breakthrough in Science and Innovation Management, Gisbert Schneider, also solves a problem in medicinal chemistry, as he introduces the concept of adaptive, AI-based drug design for more efficient drug discovery. Emmie Chiyindiko (pictured on the top image of this post), who won second place at Falling Walls Lab 2021, took her inspiration from photosynthesis to develop a new material that allows alternative energy conversion, utilization and storage. The bottom line is that many of today's grand challenges arise from issues in the health and life sciences and can only be solved with a major interdisciplinary effort.

To foster this much needed exchange across disciplines, the Falling Walls Science Summit does not only consist of a day where the Top Breakthroughs present their research on stage (the famous 9th November event), but also has a full day of debates, panels, and symposia: the Falling Walls Circle, taking place on 8th November. Bringing together people from science, society, business, and politics, the goal is to drive the international scientific agenda and to provide a framework that supports breakthrough research.

Falling Walls Science Summit attendees also have the opportunity to systematically network with Braindates, a lounge that allows anyone to start a knowledge-sharing conversation that everyone can join. Breakthrough Conversations – intimate interviews with speakers on the 8th and 9th November – also allow digital participants to engage in discussions and to ask questions about high-level research, as well as career paths.

Plenary Table on Translating Science into Medical Application, with Uğur Şahin, Maria Leptin, Christoph Huber, Emmanuelle Charpentier,  Oscar-Werner Reif, and Mariette Dichristina.
Plenary Table Translating Science into Medical Application, with Uğur Şahin, Maria Leptin, Christoph Huber, Emmanuelle Charpentier,  Oscar-Werner Reif, and Mariette Dichristina.

Falling Walls specialty: young scientists are invited to present their breakthroughs

In the categories eight to ten, where the Top Emerging Talent, the Top Science Start-Up, and the Top Science Engager are awarded the Breakthrough title, young scientists from around the globe are invited to present their work. “It’s important to highlight scientific early-career researchers because they are the most creative of us all. They have far fewer walls to break down and they are the future, they deserve support and encouragement to keep on innovating”, as Sarah Springman, rector of ETH Zürich and the Chair of Jury at Falling Walls Lab emphasizes.

Every year, the 7th November is the pitch day dedicated to these young science talents. To apply for Falling Walls Lab, keep an eye on the Open Calls for the international labs starting from spring 2022 onwards. For Falling Walls Venture and Falling Walls Engage, as well as for the first seven categories from Life Sciences to Science and Innovation Management, the call for nominations and applications starts in spring 2022, too – visit the Falling Walls website to not miss this opportunity. The Falling Walls team would be delighted to receive nominations and applications from the FEBS community, and to welcome you at the next Falling Walls Science Summit 2022, from 7th to 9th November, whether as a speaker or guest!

“It’s important to highlight scientific early-career researchers because they are the most creative of us all. They have far fewer walls to break down and they are the future, they deserve support and encouragement to keep on innovating”, Sarah Springman, rector of ETH Zürich and the Chair of Jury at Falling Walls Lab

The Falling Walls Science Summit 2021.
The Falling Walls Science Summit 2021.

Images credit: Falling Walls Foundation