When the BIH’s founding agreement was signed in 2013, it was the declared goal of the then Federal Minister of Research, Annette Schavan, to advance medical translation. The idea was to more quickly turn basic research discoveries into new medical therapies and better preventive and diagnostic care for patients. As a model project, the Berlin Institute of Health would serve as a link between Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and the Max Delbrück Center, and thereby reshape cooperation between university and non-university health research. Schavan’s colleague in the Berlin Senate Professor Jürgen Zöllner supported the endeavor, not least by arranging a generous donation from Johanna Quandt.
In addition to Charité and the Max Delbrück Center, the founding institutions included the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Berlin’s Senate Department for Education, Youth, and Science, and the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres. Professor Ernst Th. Rietschel was appointed as Founding Director and Chair of the Board of Directors.
Systems medicine instead of a single disease focus...
As an independent non-university institution of the German federal government and the State of Berlin, the BIH initially funded joint research projects of the Max Delbrück Center and Charité in which scientists and clinicians from both partners were always closely involved. The guiding idea was translational systems medicine. The focus was not on individual diseases, but on overarching mechanisms.
...in a translational ecosystem
To support these projects, the BIH, together with Charité and Max Delbrück Center, built a translational ecosystem in which clinicians and researchers work closely under one roof. The so-called Core Units provide support through scientific services, whether it’s analyzing large gene sequences and large protein and data volumes, assisting with IT and bioinformatics, storing and providing access to cell and tissue samples, or facilitating research with stem cells and organoids. The Digital Health Accelerator guides scientists in the product development and in spinning out their digital health ideas. SPARK-BIH supports the further development of advanced approaches to drug therapies, as well as early-stage projects that develop diagnostics, medical technologies, gene and cell therapies, biologics, and biotechnological processes. Both teams are now organized in the joint technology transfer office Charité BIH Innovation.
Since 2016, the BIH QUEST Center has been pursuing the goal of improving the quality of biomedical research to ensure that its findings are robust enough to actually be translated into new diagnostics, better therapies, and preventive measures. The Biomedical Innovation Academy looks after the next generation, providing Charité’s physicians at various career stages with research opportunities and translational training programs. It is primarily clinician scientists who bring medical translation to life, as they are well versed in both patient care and laboratory research. The Academy now has more than 300 alumni.
Since 2017, the BIH has increasingly recruited its own scientists and established its own research groups, especially in the fields of bioinformatics and digital medicine, vascular research, single cell technologies, and advanced therapies, with the latter particularly including gene therapies and regenerative medicine. Around 500 scientists, who interact closely with Charité and MDC, are now conducting research in around 60 working groups. At 40%, the proportion of female group leaders is higher than the national average.. BIH researchers have to date published over 4,000 scientific articles, many of them in distinguished journals. During the coronavirus pandemic, they also made valuable contributions to elucidating the infection process and advancing new therapeutic strategies. Nine start-up companies have been spun off so far. They are delivering solutions for AI-based diagnostics, creating gene therapies for epilepsy and muscle diseases, and powering a digital wallet for healthcare in Africa. The first clinical trials are already testing procedures developed with BIH support or by BIH scientists, such as immunological monitoring of transplants.
...and integration into Charité
When the BIH was integrated into Charité in 2021, moving organizationally even closer to the clinic, the two institutions were already collaborating closely on clinical studies, technology transfer, and training for the next generation of clinical scientists. Since then, the Chair of the BIH Board of Directors has a seat on Charité’s Board of Directors and the Dean of Charité is a member of the BIH Extended Board of Directors. Through this novel science policy initiative, the federal government is structurally involved for the first time in an institution of a university medical center and has a seat on Charité’s Supervisory Board.
“We are proud of what we have accomplished so far,” says Professor Christopher Baum, who has served as Chair of the BIH Board of Directors and Charité’s Chief Translational Research Officer since 2020. “Our scientists are making outstanding contributions to all fields of translational medicine. We are recognized nationwide as an example of successful cooperation between federal and state governments. Our goal is to fulfill the expectations that patients in particular have of us. Real knowledge is created by those who create impact.”
Promoting translation nationwide
With its integration into Charité, the BIH has also received a mandate from the federal government to support promising translational projects throughout Germany. “We are delighted to take on this mandate,” says Baum. “And here, in particular, I see us playing a role in rare and complex diseases, for which we want to specifically expand the possibilities of university medicine.” Baum also wants to further develop translation into an exact science whose results can not only be measured quantitatively and objectively but also reproduced. “That will be necessary in order to identify those projects that are most promising and take the best possible next steps in each case,” he explains.
Multiple locations in Berlin
The some 800 employees of the BIH are spread across multiple locations: Several research groups are based in the Käthe Beutler Building in Berlin-Buch, in the immediate vicinity of the Max Delbrück Center. In this building, named after a Jewish pediatrician and researcher, groups of BIH and the Max Delbrück Center are working together under one roof. In the Rahel Hirsch Center for Translational Medicine (RHC) in Berlin-Mitte, which was completed in January 2023, staff members of the BIH Digital Health Center and other BIH research teams will work together with experts from Charité. The RHC will also house the joint Clinical Study Center. The single cells focus area is based at the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology of the Max Delbrück Center, which is also located in Berlin-Mitte. The research groups working in the field of regenerative medicine will primarily carry out research at the Charité Campus Virchow Clinic in Berlin-Wedding. The staff members of the joint technology transfer office Charité BIH Innovation moved into new offices at Zirkus in Berlin-Mitte in 2022.