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Joint press release by Charité, the BIH, and the Max Delbrück Center

The NCT Berlin is one of six sites of the National Center for Tumor Diseases throughout Germany and represents a major extension of the Charité Comprehensive Cancer Center. Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, the Berlin Institute of Health at Charité (BIH), and the Max Delbrück Center seek, in collaboration with the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), to further intensify Berlin’s research activities in single-cell analysis, data science, and patient-reported outcome measures (PROMs) and to initiate early-stage clinical trials with the aim of improving cancer care for patients.

The therapies of tomorrow are being devised, developed, and deployed today in Berlin. Some are already in clinical use, such as immunotherapies or highly complex gene and cell therapies that intervene in the molecular processes of cancer cells, alter them in a targeted way, and ideally provide long-term cures for patients. And some are still in their infancy – but these technologies and therapies already hold great promise.

Researchers, for example, are using single-cell technologies to examine tumor tissue and blood from patients in high resolution. This enables them to see which genes the individual cells read at a certain stage of the disease, for example, thus paving the way for identifying suitable therapeutic targets. The diseased cells serve as a proxy or surrogate for the patient’s disease – the potential effect of medication can be tested without subjecting the patient to harmful side effects. Artificial intelligence analyzes the vast amounts of data that these technologies generate. The goal: predicting how the disease will progress and whether a tumor will respond to a particular therapy. The result is a treatment tailored to the cellular characteristics of the patient’s specific tumor. This approach is also known as precision oncology.

NCT Berlin unites three longstanding partners

This concept of cell-based medicine requires close interaction between clinical medicine, fundamental research – molecular biology, cell biology, and biophysics – and the cutting edge of mathematics, bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. It also requires innovative production processes that facilitate the deployment of cell therapies. This is precisely what Berlin-based single-cell researchers, tumor immunologists, bioinformaticians, and physicians have been collaborating on for some time. The work

already underway at the three partner institutions will now be continued at the new NCT site in Berlin – in order to successfully translate novel cell therapies for cancer into clinical practice. The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, which is a member of the Helmholtz Association, advances the development of biomedical technologies, paying close attention to the needs in the clinics. The BIH expands its focus on single-cell technologies and gene and cell therapies. And as Europe’s largest university hospital, Charité provides the full spectrum of interdisciplinary care to cancer patients, especially through its Comprehensive Cancer Center, which has deep expertise in innovative, personalized cancer diagnostics and therapeutics.

The partnership-based cooperation within the NCT Berlin will enable cutting-edge technologies to be further developed and translated into clinical practice, while in turn facilitating the transfer of clinical research findings into improved treatment strategies. This opens fascinating perspectives for cancer medicine, especially when it comes to questions like “Are tumor cells responding to a particular treatment?” or “How can resistance mechanisms be overcome?”

Toward personalized, state-of-the-art cancer care in the region

Each year, some 510,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed in Germany. The catchment area of the NCT Berlin covers about one-tenth of the country’s entire population: the 8.6 million individuals living in Berlin, Brandenburg, and Saxony-Anhalt. The federal-state agreement on the expanded NCT, which was signed in Heidelberg, marks a milestone in the development of cutting-edge cancer care, both at the Berlin site and beyond. Institutional funding will be provided from 2024. After completion of the start-up phase, each new NCT site will receive up to €14.5 million in annual funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (90 percent) and the respective host state (10 percent).

The Senate is playing a crucial role in the Berlin site by supporting the funding of a new NCT building at Charité Campus Virchow-Klinikum, which will house state-of-the-art laboratories, an outpatient clinic dedicated to personalized cancer medicine, and an information center for cancer patients. In order to attract young research talent in cancer to the region, the partner institutions offer well-established training opportunities, such as the BIH Charité Clinician Scientist Program, which serves as a stepping stone to a career in clinical science.

“Under one roof”

Dr. Ina Czyborra, Berlin’s Senator for Science, Health, and Care, on the importance of the NCT site for the healthcare city: “Through the establishment of NCT Berlin, we implement a key project in the coalition agreement aimed at further developing science and research in the State of Berlin. This takes Berlin another step forward as a research and healthcare hub.”

Professor Heyo K. Kroemer, Chief Executive Officer of Charité, on the unique opportunity that the NCT Berlin presents to all stakeholders: “Bringing together cancer research and cancer treatment under one roof is the overarching aim of all university hospital departments. Physicians, scientists and, above all, patients in Berlin and the surrounding region will benefit from this.”

Professor Ulrich Keilholz, Head of the Charité Comprehensive Cancer Center (CCCC) and Co-Spokesperson of the NCT Berlin, together with Charité Professor Angelika Eggert: “The new center will become an important player in the fight against cancer in the Berlin-Brandenburg region and far beyond. Each patient receives an individual treatment plan at the CCCC, which is developed by an interdisciplinary team. In addition, the NCT site will allow patients to access innovative diagnostics and participate in clinical trials. We are proud to be able to add momentum to these endeavors at the NCT Berlin and would like to thank you for your support along the way.”

Professor Nikolaus Rajewsky, Scientific Director of the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology of the Max Delbrück Center (MDC-BIMSB): “The more precisely you understand the cells in a tumor, the more specifically you can tailor your strategies to combat it. So we want to translate pioneering technologies like spatial single-cell biology into everyday clinical practice. Back in 2020, the Berlin partner institutions laid the foundation by jointly recruiting four junior research groups. At NCT Berlin we are now deepening this collaboration – for the benefit of cancer patients.”

Professor Christof von Kalle, BIH Chair of Clinical Translational Medicine and Director of the Clinical Study Center: “After the great success of the initial phase, the expansion of the NCT to six sites as part of the National Decade against Cancer is not only a tremendous opportunity for Berlin and for Charité, the Max Delbrück Center, and the BIH as the participating institutions, but also a very important next step – both nationally and internationally – in developing patient-driven cancer research and therapeutics.”