Science prize Marcel Benoist goes to a pioneer in online psychotherapy

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Thomas Berger (University of Bern) will receive this year’s Swiss Science
Thomas Berger (University of Bern) will receive this year’s Swiss Science Prize Marcel Benoist for his innovative contribution to Internet-based psychotherapy. © Daniel Rihs

Professor Thomas Berger from the University of Bern will receive this year’s Swiss Science Prize Marcel Benoist for his innovative contribution to Internet-based psychotherapy. This year’s Swiss Science Prize Latsis goes to Professor Nicola Aceto (ETH Zurich).

The Swiss Science Prize Marcel Benoist is considered by researchers to be the Swiss equivalent of the Nobel Prize and laureates are awarded CHF 250,000 for their achievements. This year’s prize goes to Thomas Berger, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at the University of Bern. Berger is a pioneer in the design, testing and rollout of digital therapeutic interventions (via apps and websites) to prevent and treat mental health issues and disorders. As a leading international expert in the area of psychotherapy research, he has explored and empirically confirmed the effectiveness of online treatment methods compared to purely conventional forms of psychotherapy.

’I am incredibly honoured to receive the Swiss Science Prize Marcel Benoist. This is a tremendous endorsement of the work and research undertaken with the support of my amazing research team and collaborative partners. At the same time, it is acknowledgement of our joint efforts to make effective psychological interventions accessible to a large number of people,’ states Berger enthusiastically.

Among other things, the web-based self-help programmes developed by Berger can be used to treat depression and anxiety, the two most common mental disorders in Switzerland. Other online tools offer help with sleep disorders or with psychological distress after illnesses and separations. Berger has also successfully developed ’blended treatments’, which combine online treatments with live therapy sessions.

Readily available digital services can greatly improve access to treatment for certain groups of patients, such as those who are absolutely unable or unwilling to see a therapist. Since the start of government measures to tackle the coronavirus situation, however, Internet-based forms of therapy have also become crucial for society as a whole. And demand is on the rise. Thomas Berger and his team are currently working on projects to further improve the effectiveness of self-help and blended approaches to treat depression and anxiety disorders. They are also working with cooperation partners to develop an app for suicide prevention as well as online interventions for vulnerable groups in society, such as refugees, who are particularly difficult to reach through conventional services.

Paving the way for new cancer treatments

As the winner of this year’s Swiss Science Prize Latsis, Italian national and associate professor at ETH Zürich Nicola Aceto will receive CHF 100,000 for his ground-breaking discoveries in the area of cancer research.

Metastasis, or the spread of cancer cells from the original locus of a tumour to other parts of the body, is often life-threatening, accounting for over 90 per cent of all cancer-related deaths worldwide. Metastasis occurs as a result of circulating tumour cells (CTC), which leave the original tumour and travel via the bloodstream to other organs, where they form secondary malignant growths.

Aceto made several important discoveries while researching these circulating tumour cells: He noticed that clusters of CTCs form metastases particularly frequently; such clusters are particularly prevalent in prostate or breast cancer, for example. He deduced from this that the spread of cancer in the body can be reduced if it is possible break down CTC clusters with drugs. Aceto has also managed to isolate viable CTCs from practically all types of cancer.

These and other findings have already been applied in clinical trials in patients with metastatic cancer and have contributed to the development of diagnostic and prognostic tools. However, Aceto and his team continue to set ambitious goals for themselves: "the Latsis Prize is a great honour for my research group and myself. Particularly, it is also a great motivation to continue our research efforts in the same very ambitious direction, aiming at developing new therapeutic concepts for targeting and suppressing metastasis in patients."

Joint award ceremony in Bern

The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) was responsible for selecting the laureates on behalf of the two foundations. The joint award ceremony for both the Swiss Science Prize Marcel Benoist and the Swiss Science Prize Latsis will take place at Bern City Hall on 4 November. The President of the Marcel Benoist Foundation, Guy Parmelin, will present the awards. He had this to say about the event: "I am extremely pleased that we can present the 2021 Swiss science prizes to two outstanding researchers. Thomas Berger and Nicola Aceto are both making great contributions to our society through their work. They are prime examples of Swiss research excellence.