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Prof. Dr. Matthias Hebrok
© Uli Benz/ TUM

Interview “Science must embrace invention, explore new avenues, test the unknown.”

Matthias Hebrok about his new Institute for Diabetes and Organoid Technology (IDOT) at Helmholtz Munich

Matthias Hebrok about his new Institute for Diabetes and Organoid Technology (IDOT) at Helmholtz Munich

Matthias Hebrok has been heading the newly founded Institute for Diabetes and Organoid Technology (IDOT) since September 2022. His research focuses on generating and studying pancreatic organoids with the aim of developing novel therapies for diabetes and pancreatic cancer. We interviewed him about his plans and goals for the new institute.

What particular challenges do you see in your new role as head of IDOT?

MH: I am very much looking forward to building up IDOT at Helmholtz Munich. I believe that our focus on human pancreatic organoids, which we generate from stem cells, opens up excellent opportunities for close collaborations at the Center and at the Technical University of Munich. It will be a challenge to figure out how we can most effectively incorporate the amazing advances in bioinformatics, gene editing and artificial intelligence into our organoid technology. Doing so will require intensive integration of IDOT with existing research groups and an understanding by our scientists that extraordinary and groundbreaking new discoveries are only achieved at the interfaces between related research fields. Another challenge will be determining ways to translate our basic research into therapies for patients with diabetes and pancreatic cancer as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Could you tell us what you would like to focus on personally?

MH: I went to the USA more than 26 years ago as a postdoc and spent a large part of my scientific career there. It was a great time and I learned a lot. What particularly impressed me about the American mentality is the way risks are not only accepted, but even actively sought. At IDOT, I want to create an environment where my staff have the freedom to focus on the most important, unresolved issues in our field. Even if they might seem unsolvable at first. I want to motivate researchers at IDOT to trust their instincts, pursue their most promising ideas and test them experimentally. Science must embrace invention, explore new avenues, test the unknown. To put it briefly - science must be fun.  This is the philosophy I will be focusing on at IDOT.

What research priorities do you want to approach through the new institute?

MH: I have been working on generating pancreatic organoids from human stem cells for a long time. The reason behind this is that when we study these structures, it is not just new information that we gain about the normal function of the pancreas. Above all, the organoids also form excellent models for the study of diseases and the development of therapies. At IDOT, we will focus on the function of the endocrine pancreas, i.e. the hormone-producing cells located in the islets of Langerhans. The hormones of these cells, especially the insulin produced by beta cells, regulate our blood sugar levels and defects in these cells lead to diabetes. For example, we are using islet cell organoids to test how to modify cells through gene editing to make them more robust to stress factors that can occur during cell replacement therapy in patients with diabetes. Furthermore, we will also exploit genetic pathways to generate 'self-healing' islet cells, i.e. equip cells to regenerate on their own after being exposed to harmful processes. 

In addition to the endocrine cells, the pancreas also has an exocrine portion that produces digestive enzymes and releases them in the intestine. These exocrine cells are the precursors of pancreatic ductal carcinoma, which is associated with high rates of mortality. We will use human stem cells to mimic the different stages and forms of pancreatic cancer and improve our understanding of how these tumours develop. The organoids generated in this process will also help to develop diagnostic methods and new therapies.

What is your overall vision for the Research Unit?

MH: We are at a point in time where it is predictable that stem cell technology coupled with bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, and bioengineering will radically shift cell therapy for patients. I want IDOT to play a pioneering role in this revolution, especially by working closely with our colleagues in other fields so that we can address the complex and outstanding issues in diabetes and pancreatic cancer research. IDOT is committed to playing a pivotal role in identifying new avenues for diabetes and pancreatic cancer therapies.

Latest update: Feburary 2023.

Find out more about Matthias Hebrok

Matthias Hebrok received his diploma in cell biology from the Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg and performed his PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Immunobiology Freiburg and postdoctoral research at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute of Harvard University.

He has been heading the newly founded Institute for Diabetes and Organoid Technology (IDOT) at Helmholtz Munich since September 2022 and has also been appointed Professor of Applied Stem Cell and Organoid Systems at TUM, effective September 1, 2022. At TUM, he heads the Center for Organoid Systems (COS).

Before, he was the 'Hurlbut-Johnson Distinguished Professor in Diabetes Research' at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) until August 2022 and also directed the Diabetes Center there from 2010 to 2020. He has made profound contributions to the fields of pancreatic development, stem cell biology and regenerative medicine.

His early work focused on studying the embryonic development and functions of the pancreas, an organ of the gastrointestinal tract affected by diabetes and pancreatic cancer. Together with his group, he has unravelled how the deregulation of embryonic signalling pathways and epigenetic factors promotes the development of pancreatic cancer. In addition, his lab developed methods to differentiate human stem cells into functional, hormone-producing islet cells - a groundbreaking technology that enables cell replacement therapy for patients with diabetes. 

He has received several honours and awards, including the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) Scholar Award and the Gerold & Kayla Grodsky Award for outstanding scientific contributions to diabetes research. He serves as a consultant to academic diabetes centres and holds a visiting professorship at the Technical University of Dresden. He has supported several biotech and stem cell companies as a scientific advisor and is co-founder of a company developing novel nanosensors to monitor the activities of stem cell-derived grafts in patients. Matthias has chaired the Cellular Aspects of Diabetes and Obesity (CADO) Review Committee of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and was an affiliate of the Diabetes Mellitus Interagency Coordinating Committee (DMICC) of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and the Research Advisory Board for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).


Matthias Hebrok is also Professor of Applied Stem Cell and Organoid Systems at TUM