Simon Lebek

is UR’s Professor of Internal Medicine with a focus on Experimental Cardiology and Gene Editing.

© UR | Photo: Tanja Wagensohn


The Trailblazer

© June 2024. Tanja Wagensohn UR. All rights reserved.

Simon Lebek is a relentless seeker of new heights. His mountaineering achievements include Kun in Ladakh, Spantik in Pakistan, and Muztagh Ata, a prominent peak in the Pamir Mountains. He climbed these mountains as a child on expeditions with his father. Now, at the age of 28, he is on his way to the top of his profession. A clinician-scientist who enjoys pushing the boundaries of human potential and scientific discovery, he has received the Oskar Lapp Research Prize from the German Cardiac Society and the Brown & Goldstein Award for Excellence in Postdoctoral Research 2024 of the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Most recently, he was awarded the prestigious Heisenberg Professorship by the German Research Foundation, which (together with other grants) provides 1.3 million euros in funding and other resources for promising young researchers.

The Gene Pen

Simon Lebek focuses on cardiovascular disease. It is still the leading cause of death in Germany, more common than cancer. "New therapeutic approaches are urgently needed," he says. The early-career researcher wants to decipher the underlying mechanisms of cardiovascular diseases and develop strategies to break through the mechanisms that cause them. But this is not about drugs. The idea is to use gene editing to modify typical disease triggers in diseases so that they can no longer cause these diseases.

Gene or genome editing is a group of technologies that give scientists the ability to modify an organism's DNA. These technologies allow genetic material to be added, removed, or altered at specific locations in the genome. Several approaches to gene editing have been developed. One well-known approach is called CRISPR-Cas9. Traditional CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, often likened to "genetic scissors," involves cutting DNA at specific locations to silence or remove genes. Simon Lebek is pioneering a new technology that can be described as a "gene pen" rather than a "gene scissors". His approach involves precise modifications of the genetic code without cutting the DNA, but rather modifying specific portions of the DNA, more akin to rewriting or correcting specific letters in a text with a molecular pen.

With this particular type of gene editing, the clinician-scientist is addressing cardiac problems, focusing in particular on calcium/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II, which is critical for heart cell signaling and function. Its overactivation, triggered by oxidation, can lead to significant damage after a heart attack. Lebek and his colleagues edited the gene to prevent harmful overactivation of the enzyme and were able to significantly improve heart function after a heart attack with no apparent negative side effects. The potential for future human therapies is promising.

Research stay in Dallas, Texas

In 2024, Simon Lebek returned from a nearly three-year postdoctoral research stay at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW) in Dallas, USA, where he was involved in this groundbreaking research. He was invited there by Professor Eric Olson to join his laboratory while he was completing his habilitation in Regensburg with a focus on myocardial function and pathology. With a smile on his face, Lebek enjoyed his research stay in the USA. "It was a fantastic time," he enthuses. "We had an international team with amazing colleagues who made it possible to work together at the highest level. The atmosphere in the lab was electric, everyone was motivated, everyone helped each other, everyone was curious, everyone wanted to discover science."

Coming from a family of physicians has certainly not been counterproductive to the way Simon Lebek has pursued his career. His father, grandfather, brother and sister are all doctors. His wife is a dentist - but unlike him, she is also musically talented, he says with a laugh. The early-career researcher regrets that he plays only a little piano and no other instruments at a higher level.

Extreme sports are his passion

However, he hasn't missed out on sports. He goes ice climbing, jogging, and scuba diving. His oceanic explorations include the diverse waters of Thailand and India, Easter Island and the Bahamas. Most recently, the trained rescue and deep-sea diver went cenote diving in Mexico, navigating through submerged cave systems. Extreme sports are his passion. He can't go high enough or low enough. Most notably, he was one of the youngest people ever to climb the massive Watzmann Ostwand, one of the most challenging and revered routes in the Bavarian Alps. 

Nowadays, however, free time is rare. In the U.S., it was down to one week a year. Simon Lebek's last climbing expedition was in 2019. In his current position as an professor of internal medicine and cardiology at the University Hospital in Regensburg, Germany, Simon Lebek plans to continue working to identify promising targets for the treatment of a variety of cardiovascular diseases, while also seeing patients. "I hope that my research and clinical work will be mutually beneficial," he says. "My goal is to observe disease patterns in the clinic, process them in the laboratory, and gain insights for the clinic."

International cardiologists see their colleague as forward-thinking, "with a great future ahead of him. So what's next? "I want to establish and perfect the methods I learned in America, build up a large, internationally visible interdisciplinary working group, acquire more third-party funding and establish and intensify international research collaborations," says the clinician-scientist. Several publications in leading scientific journals are also in the pipeline. Does he plan to return to the United States, where his two children were born? "At the moment I just want to plan for Regensburg. I have a lot of time. I let the possibilities guide me.”

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