Start of first research projects // Prof. Jörg Hacker, President of the Leopoldina, is elected Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board

T cell therapy for cancers, protein-dependent processes in Alzheimer’s disease, and molecular mechanisms, diagnosis, and treatment of inherited children’s diseases are the focal points of the first three major research projects supported by the Berlin Institute of Health beginning in mid-March 2014.

Funded through so-called Collaborative Research Grants, these projects are being carried out by large, long-term research consortia with an interdisciplinary orientation; they are based on close cooperation between biomedical and clinical researchers from the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin-Buch (MDC) and the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. Over the next four years, a total of c. 17 million euros will be available for this research, with grant-extension possible following evaluation. With these three projects, the BIH aims to advance research in translational systems medicine, for the sake of developing improved diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventative medical procedures and bringing them to the clinic.

Prof. Ernst Th. Rietschel has offered the following comment on this first decision by the Directorate regarding major grant funding: “With the choice of the first funded projects, our research approach has now become reality. I would like to express my great pleasure at these excellent and highly relevant projects. They show that shared, interdisciplinary work by basic researchers and clinicians from the Charité and MDC under a single roof has a great future—for science, for medical practice, and finally for human health.”

T cell gene therapy for cancer

Cancer immunotherapy, more specifically T cell gene therapy, is the research focus of the consortium coordinated by Prof. Thomas Blankenstein (MDC) and Prof. Peter-M. Kloetzel (Charité). The idea at work here is to modify the receptors on T cells of patients in such a way that the T cells recognize specifically altered antigens of cancer cells. The modified T cell receptors can be isolated and used to manufacture patient-specific altered T cells capable of destroying a tumor. The results of this new research approach will form the basis of a subsequent clinical trial. Seven experimental and clinical research groups affiliated with the MDC and the Charité are involved in this project.

Proteins in the focus of research on Alzheimer’s disease

Genetic and environmental factors as well as age lay a basis for the emergence of Alzheimer’s disease. The scientists in the consortium coordinated by Prof. Erich Wanker (MDC) and Prof. Frank Heppner (Charité) are concentrating on a new research approach: they are studying the ways in which the balance of proteins — the proteostasis network — is disturbed in the disease. The highly complex interplay of proteins in cells affected by Alzheimer’s will here be analyzed by a number of cooperating teams. Using special chemical and biological methods, it is possible to identify individual components of the proteostasis network. On this basis, the connections are then modeled using computer-supported procedures, in order to make visible the disturbances of the proteostatic system caused by the disease. The increased knowledge concerning these defective mechanisms will contribute to the development of new therapies, on the one hand, and to research on new possibilities for deploying medications that are already in use, on the other hand.

Genomic analysis of inherited children’s diseases

Between four and six percent of infants and small children are born with congenital disorders worldwide. How can such inherited diseases be characterized and thus be better diagnosed and treated? A consortium coordinated by Prof. Christian Rosenmund (Charité and speaker of the NeuroCure Cluster of Excellence) and Prof. Carmen Birchmeier (MDC) is focusing on this question. The key to an answer lies in a detailed medical examination of each patient, accompanied by a comprehensive genomic analysis. This can contribute to a better understanding of disease mechanisms and point to paths for new types of therapy. In this project, clinicians working in pediatrics and scientists will closely collaborate in identifying mutations, studying the mechanisms of inherited diseases, and deriving new treatment possibilities. Those participating are specialists in neurology, cardiology, endocrinology, nephrology, and the skeletal system, together with mathematicians, experts in bioinformatics, molecular biologists, and biochemists.

Research project begin in March

The funding round for the Collaborative Research Grants (supporting major collaborative projects systems medicine approach and a clear translational perspective) began with a call for applications in November 2013. By January 2014 a total of nine research proposals had been submitted. Following consultation and recommendations by the Scientific Advisory Board in late February 2014, on Monday the Directorate made its decisions regarding the first funded projects.

The Scientific Advisory Board elects its chairman

In the framework of its constitutive meeting in late February 2014 in Berlin, the Scientific Advisory Board elected its chairman. Prof. Jörg Hacker, president of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in Halle (Saale), has assumed the chairmanship to immediate effect. Hacker is a microbiologist; his research areas include the molecular analysis of infectious agents. He has been president of the Leopoldina since 2010. Previously he was vice president of the German Research Foundation (2003–2009) and president of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin (2008–2010).

Prof. Veronica van Heyningen from the Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at the University of Edinburgh has been elected vice-chair. At present the Scientific Advisory Board consists of twelve specialists in translational research and systems medicine.

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