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The terror of GDR athletes

The terror of GDR athletes

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/Simone Golob

Frans Ramaekers inspired by Werner Franke

Cell biologist Werner Franke is a broad-shouldered, charismatic, very present man. It was this former head of the German cancer research institute who played a formative role in the career of UM professor Frans Ramaekers.

"A year ago, I was in the cafeteria in the cancer centre in Heidelberg", says Ramaekers, scientific director of the GROW research institute. "I’m supervising a PhD candidate there. Suddenly I think, what’s that I’m hearing? It was a loud, enthusiastic voice, and I knew straight away that it was his. Franke is 75 but still entirely with it, just as energetic and driven as ever. You can tell from the way he talks to you. He still has an office at the Deutsche Krebsforschungszentrum, leads a research group there and publishes regularly."

Franke is a renowned scientist, but to the German general public he is best known as the husband of Olympic athlete and discus thrower Brigitte Berendonk. He was also her trainer and, together, they used Stasi archives to bring to light the doping practices of East German athletes. "As he tells it, it sounds like a spy novel. They faced all sorts of obstacles and threats. Before Berendonk’s book was released they even went into ‘hiding’ for several months with a friend in Israel."

Ramaekers met him during his PhD in Nijmegen. "I was studying proteins in the cells of the eye lens and discovered an abnormal protein composition in the cytoskeleton [which gives the cell its shape –Ed.]. I took the plunge and got in contact with Franke, whose star was already rising. He was very interested in the results and let me spend a week in his lab. That’s when we came up with a new research idea: can analysis of the cytoskeleton help in diagnosing cancer?"

The pair agreed to submit an application to the Dutch Cancer Society and Ramaekers, then still working on his PhD, managed to land a major grant. The day after he graduated, he took up a position at the pathology department ("where the tumours walk in") of Radboud hospital. There he spent ten years as head of a research group. Gradually, it became ever clearer that analysis of the cytoskeleton played a useful part in identifying tumours.

Ramaekers saw Franke’s group steadily climbing to the world’s top in cytoskeleton research. "His researchers were so good and had this assembly line of publications in top journals. His lab was very inspiring to work in. He was by no means a slave driver, but he did demand a big commitment and high quality."

One of Franke’s key contributions was to systematically map the structure of the cytoskeleton, which determines the shape of the cell. "He did such an impressive job of it; the catalogue is still used to this day. Everything he does, he does properly. He always goes straight to the crux of the matter."

In 1989 Ramaekers relocated to Maastricht, where he became head of the Department of Molecular Cell Biology and later director of the GROW institute, specialising in cancer research. The two positions reflect the twin tracks of his career, with research into the cytoskeleton on the one hand and cancer on the other. The seeds of which, all those years ago, were planted in Heidelberg.

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