The Excellence Initiative aims to strengthen Germany’s position as a sustainable location for science and improve its international competitiveness. One of the measures designed to support this initiative are so-called clusters of excellence, which focus on expanding the scope of scientific research at one location. The purpose is to bring together outstanding scientists to work on socially or economically relevant topics.
The Helmholtz Association, which currently participates in 18 of the 43 existing clusters of excellence, is keen to strengthen cooperation with universities, and to this end has set up so-called Helmholtz Excellence Networks. These support the preparation of full proposals for DFG clusters of excellence. In the current Phase 2 of funding, a number of promising projects have now been selected, each of which will receive 350,000 euros of support for one year. Three of the projects will be conducted at the Helmholtz Zentrum München.
The collaboration project “Understanding Obesity” deals with unresolved issues relating to prevention, causal mechanisms and effective treatment for patients with pathological overweight and aims to overcome the existing lack of interdisciplinarity in obesity research. Since November 2017, scientists at the Helmholtz Zentrum München are cooperating with colleagues at the University of Leipzig in the wake of this project which is coordinated by Prof. Matthias Tschöp. “In recent decades, obesity has reached epidemic dimensions worldwide and presents a major health problem, not only in Germany,” Prof. Tschöp explains. “We hope that the findings from the transdisciplinary approach of our cluster will help to develop new health guidelines, appropriate social and preventive measures and new, more effective forms of long-term therapy for people with obesity.” Recent transformative findings emerging from the research in the Tschöp laboratory include the discovery that not only neurons, but also other brain cells like astrocytes participate in the central nervous system control circuits governing systemic metabolism. The scientists now aim to elucidate the underlying mechanisms of neuron-astrocyte signaling to understand hypothalamic dysfunctions associated with the development of obesity.*
The i3 (Imagine) project, focusing on the integration of engineering, machine learning and biomedicine, is coordinated by Prof. Vasilis Ntziachristos, who brings together the Helmholtz Zentrum and the Technical University of Munich (TUM) for this purpose. As of February 2018, researchers will focus on advancing imaging technologies by improving their predictive, diagnostic and theranostic** capabilities. The challenges of i3 range from technical hurdles (contrast, sensitivity, specificity and resolution) to the processing and interpretation of data (image analysis & machine learning) through to the correlation of the obtained images with the results of the clinical assessments of the patients. ”Biomedical imaging is pivotal for non-invasive assessment of tissue parameters in biology and medicine, and a key tool used in precision medicine in the context of diabetes, cancer and other common diseases,” Prof. Ntziachristos emphasizes. Prof. Fabian Theis, Prof. Daniel Razansky and Prof. Matthias Tschöp from the Helmholtz Zentrum München are also involved in the project.
The third project that has now received funding is called Rebirth4Munich. It follows on from the existing REBIRTH cluster of excellence established at the Hanover Medical School and the city’s Leibniz University. In this project, mechanisms of organogenesis, endogenous repair mechanisms and stem cell biology are transferred to defined in vitro systems as well as to clinically relevant disease models in order to develop regenerative medicine approaches and new therapeutic concepts. The focus here is on common diseases of the heart, the lungs, the liver and the blood, as well as of the immune system. “Since January REBIRTH4Munich has ideally complemented activities in Hanover by covering the entire spectrum of chemical issues at the cluster of excellence,” explains Prof. Oliver Plettenburg. He acts as a “bridgehead” as he is linked to the Helmholtz Zentrum München through the Hanover based Institute of Medicinal Chemistry and moreover holds the Chair of Medicinal Chemistry at the Leibniz University in Hanover.
* The project is co-coordinated by Dr. Sandrine Lefort, a neuroscience specialist recently recruited from the University of Geneva now joining the Institute for Diabetes and Obesity (IDO) at the Helmholtz Zentrum München. Leipzig University hospital offers an access to clinical research and treatment of obese patients and the novel Helmholtz Institute for Metabolism, Adiposity and Vascular Research (HI-MAG) will also largely foster this cooperation.
** The term “theranostics” is used to define the ever-closer link between diagnostics and therapy. Theranostics aims to enable the right treatment for the right patient at the right time.
In 2019 the Excellence Initiative will be continued in a different form, under the name “Excellence Strategy”. However, the clusters of excellence will remain unchanged. The Helmholtz Association currently participates in 18 of the 42 existing clusters of excellence. In the new Excellence Strategy it aims to further improve collaboration with universities in order to focus on integrating the special strengths of the Helmholtz Association and the Helmholtz research portfolio into future clusters of excellence. In addition, the Helmholtz centers participating in a cluster of excellence proposal will – together with the universities – establish so-called Helmholtz Excellence Networks, the aim of which is to bring together complementary competencies and enable the resulting partnership synergies to thrive in new clusters of excellence.
The Helmholtz Zentrum München, the German Research Center for Environmental Health, pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich and has about 2,300 staff members. It is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 18 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members.
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