Dr Lars Ittner: tracking down Alzheimer's disease

In his relatively short time as a researcher, Dr Lars Ittner has achieved a great deal.

Dr Lars Ittner

His research career began in 2003 and in late 2007 he began running an independent research program at the Brain & Mind Research Institute. He is a world renowned expert in developing and analysing mouse models of human disorders and recently led a team that made a major breakthrough in Alzheimer research by finding an underlying cause of the disease at a cellular level.

Dr. Ittner is a Senior Lecturer, NHMRC Senior Research Fellow and group leader at the Brain and Mind Research Institute.

He commenced his research career as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the laboratory of Professor Jan A Fischer at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, moving on in 2005 to become a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the laboratory of Professor Jürgen Götz at the University of Sydney.

His journey to Sydney began in Germany.

“I received my medical degree in 2001 from the University of Ulm in Germany. I undertook an experimental thesis to receive the title ‘Doctor of Medicine’ - which is common practice in Germany and Switzerland - from the University of Zurich in Switzerland,” Dr Ittner explains.

It was during his thesis, in the Laboratory for Calcium Metabolism of Professor Jan A Fischer, that Dr Ittner became fascinated with basic science, and decided to commence a full-time research career.

“In 2002 I was selected into the highly competitive Postgraduate Course for Experimental Biology and Medicine at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.” Dr Ittner says.

“In this course, a small group of MDs receive intensive training theoretically and practically over two years in different research fields, including Immunology, Endocrinology, Molecular Biology, Cancer Biology and Neuroscience. This qualification is held by leading researchers, including the Nobel laureate Professor Rolf Zinkernagel, and I was lucky enough to be able to work with him on some projects.”

It is Dr Ittner’s work with mice that has brought him significant attention. He has established numerous disease models, by using transgenic, knockout and conditional knockout mice.

“More recently, I have concentrated on novel transgenic mouse models of neurodegenerative diseases. Besides histological and biochemical analysis of these models, I use behavioural and motor testing for my studies and I am also very experienced in microsurgery in mice.”

Recently, he has established a wireless EEG system for rodents at the Brain & Mind Research Institute.

Combinatorial approaches by cross-breeding mouse models are becoming increasingly popular and Dr Ittner has used these approaches to great effect in Alzheimer’s research, identifying how a protein called tau mediates the toxicity of amyloid-b, which together with TAU causes the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

“I used different combinatorial approaches to identify a fundamental pathological process in Alzheimer’s disease, namely how tau mediates amyloid-b toxicity in vivo.”

This major breakthrough could lead to potential therapy of the disease. It was published in the journal Cell in August 2010, and highlighted by Nature Reviews Neuroscience and Nature Biotechnology as a Research Highlight.

It is work such as this that has led Dr Ittner to receive several awards for his work, including the Merck Young Achiever Award 2010 for Excellence in Translational Medical Research.