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Virologist Behrens, Hepatitis C Expert, Joins Fox Chase Cancer Center

PHILADELPHIA (Nov. 22, 2002) -- Virologist Sven-Erik Behrens, Ph.D., of Elkins Park, Pa., recently joined Fox Chase Cancer Center's division of basic science. A primary focus of his research is the hepatitis C virus, which along with hepatitis B is a major cause of primary liver cancer-one of the 10 most common cancers in the world. Although hepatitis C affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide, no effective therapy is available. Hepatitis C causes much of the hepatitis-related liver cancer in the United States.

Dr. Behrens also studies the family of viruses known as pestiviruses, which infect cattle and other livestock. Pestiviruses provide valuable models for studying how the hepatitis C virus reproduces, or replicates.

Pestiviruses are of interest in their own right as well, since they cause a number of diseases with an economic impact, including bovine viral diarrhea viruses and hog cholera or swine fever virus. Pestivirus infection can also result in reproductive problems and congenital defects among cattle and other livestock such as sheep and goats. A recently discovered pestivirus, identified in 2001, has been found to infect wildlife and may be able to transmit the infection to livestock.

The German-born Behrens comes to Fox Chase from the Institute for Virology of the Justus-Liebig University in Giessen, Germany. Before joining the staff there in 1996, he served as a staff scientist at the Institute for Molecular Biology and Tumor Research (IMT) of the Philipps University in Marburg, Germany, from 1992 to 1993. He had conducted much of his predoctoral research there from 1989 to 1992.

The German ministry for education and research awarded Behrens a postdoctoral fellowship for research on infectious diseases. He held this fellowship from 1993 to 1998, focusing on biochemical factors involved in how hepatitis C and pestiviruses replicate. He pursued these studies at the Institute for Research on Molecular Biology (IRBM) in Rome, Italy, until 1995.

IRBM, now part of the Merck Research Laboratory division of Merck & Company, is dedicated to the discovery and development of new medicines for human viral diseases and cancer. Hepatitis C is one of IRBM's main research targets.

At IRBM, Behrens became the first to isolate an RNA enzyme, an RNA-dependent polymerase, that is crucial to hepatitis C replication. This achievement gained him immediate recognition in the field of virology. He has received many invitations to lecture at international conferences.

"Sven-Erik Behrens is known as a highly innovative scientist whose pioneering work has had significant impact in the field of RNA virus replication," said virologist Anna Marie Skalka, Ph.D., senior vice president for basic science at Fox Chase. "Fox Chase has a long-established program of research on hepatitis B and we're delighted to expand our research effort against hepatitis and liver cancer by adding the talents of a leading researcher in the field of hepatitis C."

Grants from the German Science Foundation and the Germany's Foundation of the Chemical Industry have helped support Behrens' work at Justus-Liebig University's Institute for Virology. Currently he has a grant from SmithKline Beecham for a collaborative project to develop a cell-culture system for replicating the hepatitis C virus and identifying molecular factors that are essential for the virus's replication.

Behrens received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Freie University in Berlin, earning his Dr.rer.nat. (the German equivalent of Ph.D.) summa cum laude in 1992. His predoctoral studies included a year at the renowned Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin as well as three years at Philipps University's Molecular Biology and Tumor Research in Marburg.

Behrens is married to Martina Baroth, a veterinarian, who recently earned her Ph.D. ( at the Justus-Liebig University in Giessen. They have a two-and-a-half-year-old son, Mark Christian.

Fox Chase Cancer Center, part of the Temple University Health System, is one of the leading cancer research and treatment centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence four consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach.  For more information, call 1-888-FOX CHASE or (1-888-369-2427).

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