A method expanding the pharma industry’s toolbox wins the Spark Award

The Spark Award honours the most promising invention at ETH Zurich last year. The winning project of this year’s edition could lead to drugs that are more selective and easier to produce than they are today.

The Spark Award was presented yesterday for the eleventh time. The competition was intense again this year. 99 patents were granted to ETH researchers in 2021. Of these, 20 made it onto a long list; from these, the jury selected five finalists, who presented themselves to the audience at the award ceremony.

The winning team developed a new method for site-selective protein functionalisation. The method allows to target one specific site in a specific protein in a living cell without effecting others. It is based on an enzyme which the team discovered earlier and which modifies this unique location. In addition the team identified molecules that attach themselves specifically to this modified location. These molecules can act as a carrier for example for fluorescent dyes, radio labels or drug molecules.

The team has already carried out a proof of principle study by linking a protein to a fluorescent dye inside a bacterium. The method has numerous potential applications including the new class of drugs called antibody drug conjugates. The method could lead to ADCs that are more selective and easier to produce than they are today.


The five final projects showed the breadth of research at ETH Zurich. They came from the life sciences, microtechnology but also from the fintech sector. In addition, almost all of the finalists are planning to launch a spin-off. One of the projects (Marbled meat analogue extrusion device and method) is already being funded as part of the ETH Pioneer Fellowships.

The list of the five finalists can be found on the ETH Zurich website. Videos of the projects have also been published on the ETH YouTube channel.

(Stefan Kyora)
Picture: ETH Zurich