Since February, Prof. Dr. Henning Wackerhage has been a Professor of Sports Biology at the Department of Sport and Health Sciences. The 49 year old studied sports at the German University of Sports in Cologne (DSHS). As a triathlete, the native of Lower Saxony, won the German University championship and, as a top German athlete, placed third in the German national championship. After graduating, Prof. Wackerhage received his doctorate from the DSHS and the German Center for Air and Space Travel (DLR) in 1996 on the topic of "Control of mitochondrial respiration in the skeletal musculature".
Subsequently, the physiologist became a "lecturer" in Preston, England in 1997 where he helped to establish the Department of Exercise Physiology at the University of Central Lancashire. This was first followed by a position at the Scottish University of Dundee and then, in 2005, by ten years of vocation as a 'Senior Lecturer' and then as a 'Reader' at the University of Aberdeen.
Prof. Wackerhage, what do you consider the strengths of the TU Munich to be?
"The TU Munich is a very innovative university and was, for example, the best university in Germany according to the QS ranking. The Technical University of Munich is a university which very consistently follows the transformation to internationalization, for example, by deviating from the German tradition of only employing German scientists. Instead, it attempts to compete internationally, which is best undertaken by measuring itself against Harvard, Cambridge or Oxford rather than considering only German universities."
Where would you set the focus of TUM?
"In the field of sports biology, my area of expertise is, first of all, the molecular biology of sports. This relatively new field has two main contents. First of all, the molecular mechanisms that regulate performance and adaptations to health due to sport stress, and secondly the genetics of sports whereby, for instance, the DNA variants are responsible for the coding of sport talents.
My passion over the last years has become of the Hippo pathway of the muscles and this will be the focus of our research."
On this subject, you have already performed research in Scotland. Your group was the first to identify the Hippo in the muscles and is one of the leading research groups in this field internationally. What does the term "Hippo" stand for?
"The name of Hippo goes back to a gene which controls the cell numbers in the fly. If one manipulates the Hippo gene in the fly, the tissues grow and hence attains an appearance like the skin of a hippo. The Hippo pathway generally regulates cell proliferation, which is important for the development of stem cells, the growth of organs, but is also important for cancer.It is true that we are one of the very few groups to investigate the Hippo in the muscle. We suspect that Hippo is probably a very important regulator for adjustments relating to sports and exercise. At the same time, defective Hippo proteins are also important in muscle diseases. Examples for this include muscle cancer - like the rhabdomyosarcoma - and possibly even muscular dystrophy."
Will you also be performing research on this topic at the TUM?
"Precisely. Our goal is to investigate the Hippo pathway in the musculature - especially in regard to performance and adaptations to health because of sport stress. Hippo proteins, namely, are modulated by many stimuli that occur through physical adaptation. We therefore believe that this can play a role in muscle regeneration following sport injuries and in adapting to endurance and strength training."
What partnerships do you aim achieve?
"For these issues, we have excellent partners at the TU Munich. For example, our colleagues from Weihenstephan with whom we would like to characterize the regulatory network of Hippo in the muscles. At the same time, we could collaborate in the field of cancer research, since Hippo also plays a role in muscle cancer."
Are there already concrete ideas for cooperation with partners within the faculty?
"I think that Prof. Halle is a potentially important partner of cooperation together with the prevenTUM Centre and its commitment toward preventative sport. Prof. Halle is also active in the fields of muscle aging and in 'cancer and movement'."
On what topics are you going to train our students?
"My field of focus here will naturally also be sports biology. And the topic which I can best teach as a result of my research will be molecular sports biology or sport physiology. I have also written two textbooks and a German-language book will soon be available as well which was carried out in collaboration with colleagues from Vienna. Students are often nervous when one speaks of 'molecules'. This sounds so complicated. I think one can also teach this in an easy, interesting and practically-relevant manner. My goal is therefore to convey this practically and this also worked really well in Scotland."
Do you have an example for this?
"Look at sports talents. This is due to variations in the DNA sequence. An example for this is body size which is a major factor, for example, in NBA basketball players. Body size is inherited to about 80% and the DNA sequence variants that affect the body size are beginning to become more and more known. Here, I would like the students to understand that talent actually depends on variations in the DNA sequence. This is one of the topics that I would like to teach with enthusiasm."
Your main sport used to be the triathlon. Has it remained so while in Scotland?
"That has changed somewhat. There are other sports which are also very attractive. In recent years, mountain hiking, rock climbing, ice climbing and sea kayaking have become new hobbies for me."
Munich is not a very bad location for these types of sport.
"It was also strategically important [he laughs]. The main reason for coming to Munich was the quality of the Technical University of Munich as a leading international University with fantastic opportunities for cooperation. But the mountains or the lakes also had to be nearby. I'm glad to see that there are the mountains. I will also be an active sports biologist and not just a theorist with a fat belly [said with a laugh]."
Prof. Dr. Henning Wackerhage
Chair of Sports Biology
Uptown Munich, Campus D
Georg Brauchle Ring 60/62
Telephone: 089 289 24480
Interviewer: Fabian Kautz
Translation: Ed Beese