RWTH Researcher Awarded Second Place in Deutscher Studienpreis Competition


Dr. Kai Markus Schneider researches the progression of liver disease to develop new diagnosis and therapy approaches.


RWTH researcher Dr. Kai Markus Schneider is one of this year's nine recipients of the Deutscher Studienpreis, which is awarded to Germany's best junior researchers. The Körber Stiftung awards a total of 100,000 euros to research "with substantial and innovative value" in three categories – cultural science and humanities, natural science and technology, and social sciences. Schneider studied and completed his doctorate under Professor Christian Trautwein at RWTH Aachen. Since 2016, he has been a resident physician at Medical Clinic III (Clinic for Gastroenterology, Metabolic Disorders, and Internal Intensive Medicine at Uniklinik RWTH Aachen).

He was awarded the second place Deutscher Studienpreis for his dissertation "Intestinal Influence on the Development and Progression of Liver Disease – a New Approach for Diagnosis and Treatment." The 28-year-old has proven that a properly functioning intestinal wall and intestinal bacteria significantly influence the development of fatty liver disease and that a change in intestinal flora can stop the progression of the disease." These findings could be life-saving for patients with chronic liver disease.

Obesity Not Always Cause of Liver Disease

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease or NAFLD is the most common liver disease in the western world.15 to 30 percent of the population suffers from it. Primary risk factors are obesity and excess weight. However, the disease does not become life-threatening for all overweight patients. In his dissertation, Schneider investigated which factors determine whether the disease progresses into cirrhosis or liver cell cancer.

The liver is connected to the intestine via the portal vein, with the intestine supplying the liver with roughly two thirds of its blood supply. Nutrients are transported via the portal vein to be then utilized by the liver. At the same time, liver cells and immune cells in the liver face foreign molecules, which primarily originate from intestinal bacteria. This is unproblematic for a healthy individual as their liver immune cells are more tolerant towards these molecules. They are able to filter harmful agents from the blood.

Tissue Hormones Protect Intestine and Liver

Schneider successfully identified an intact intestinal wall as an important protective factor. Phagocytes residing in the intestine are specialized to eradicate foreign agents and bacteria and to prohibit them from entering the portal vein. These phagocytes also release tissue hormones that help maintain the intestinal wall. Liver disease develops when this intestinal barrier is damaged and an increase in microbes enters the liver.

CX3CR1 is a tissue hormone receptor on the cell surface of phagocytes in the intestine. In order to investigate what role this receptor plays in the intestinal wall and the development of NAFLD, Schneider used mice lacking the receptor. In order to mimic western diets, the mice and control animals with an intact receptor were fed a fatty diet. This allowed the protective effect of CX3CR1 on liver disease to be observed. Schneider's initial hypothesis was that a missing receptor would lead to an increase in microbial molecules entering the liver from the intestine and cause inflammation. He showed that CX3CR1 is crucial for maintaining an intact intestinal barrier. He proved that the liver alone is not a deciding factor for the development and progression of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease but rather the intestine particularly and its flora play a primary role. These findings could be incorporated into the future diagnosis and treatment of patients with the disease.

Source: Press and Communications