Helmholtz Association

Research Field Health

Health Research in the Helmholtz Association aims to unravel the complex causes of major chronic diseases and develop novel strategies for prevention, early diagnostics and effective therapies for the benefit of patients.

Goals

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Forscherinnen im Labor des Helmholtz Institutes for Pharmaceutical Research Saarland (HIPS). Bild: HIPS/HZI

Their aim is to help develop efficient methods for the early detection, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of these major common diseases. The research on complex and often chronic illnesses requires interdisciplinary approaches, which the Helmholtz centres implement in cooperation with partners from medical schools, universities, other research organisations and industry. The Helmholtz centres active in the field of health research perform outstanding basic research and apply their expertise to the development of new methods for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of illnesses. They are making this expertise available to the German Centres of Health Research, which were founded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research in order to improve the translation of basic research findings into clinical applications.

Outlook

The long-term goal of health research at the Helmholtz Association is to improve medical care and quality of life for the population into old age. Individually tailored options for prevention and treatment will play a vital role in the future, but it will also be important to better understand the role of the metabolic syndrome as a risk factor for several of the major common diseases. A key contribution will be made by the Helmholtz translational centres and the German Centres of Health Research – together with the National Cohort as a resource for epidemiology and prevention research.

Research Programmes


Cancer Research

The goal of the Cancer Research Programme is to make significant improvements in the prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

More details about Research Programme Cancer Research


Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disease

The programme’s aim is to examine the causes of nervous system disorders and create more efficient methods for their prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care.

More details about Research Programme Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disease


Infection Research

This programme concentrates on the molecular mechanisms responsible for the development and course of infectious diseases.

More details about Research Programme Infection Research


Disorders of the Nervous System

Being able to grow old is not just a blessing. Unfortunately, older people are more likely to suffer from neurological and psychiatric illnesses.

More details about Research Programme Disorders of the Nervous System


Genetic and Environmental Influences on Common Diseases

Diabetes, pulmonary illnesses, cardiovascular diseases, disorders of the nervous system and cancer result from the complex interplay between genetics, environmental factors and personal lifestyles.

More details about Research Programme Environmental Health

The programmes in the funding period 2014-2018

Research activities at the Helmholtz Health Centers are organized in three closely interrelated areas:

- Excellent basic research
- Analysis of complex biological systems
- modeling of disease processes

Major activities in these three research lines are pursued at five Helmholtz Centers: the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg, the Helmholtz Center Munich – the German Research Center for Environmental Health (HMGU), the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI), the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin-Buch, and the nationwide German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE). Other Centers that provide important contributions to specific programs are the Research Center Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR), the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), and the Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research (GSI).

Our disease-oriented programs and a joint strategy for the third period of program-oriented funding (2014-2018) put the Research Field Health within the Helmholtz Association in an excellent position to make important contributions to the challenging area of biomedical research.

Research is currently being conducted in five programmes.

Research Programmes


Cancer Research

The goal of the Cancer Research Programme is to make significant improvements in the prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

More details about Research Programme Cancer Research


Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disease

The programme’s aim is to examine the causes of nervous system disorders and create more efficient methods for their prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care.

More details about Research Programme Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disease


Infection Research

This programme concentrates on the molecular mechanisms responsible for the development and course of infectious diseases.

More details about Research Programme Infection Research


Disorders of the Nervous System

Being able to grow old is not just a blessing. Unfortunately, older people are more likely to suffer from neurological and psychiatric illnesses.

More details about Research Programme Disorders of the Nervous System


Genetic and Environmental Influences on Common Diseases

Diabetes, pulmonary illnesses, cardiovascular diseases, disorders of the nervous system and cancer result from the complex interplay between genetics, environmental factors and personal lifestyles.

More details about Research Programme Environmental Health

Strategic Cross-Programme Activities

To be able to respond as quickly as possible to new developments, a flexible system of cross-cutting activities was created to contribute to the further development of important resources and technologies. Here, the fields of epidemiology, translational research, and personalized medicine are given particular significance as regards research policy and strategy.

Epidemiological research
Epidemiological research aims at identifying both the genetic and the environmental risk factors so as to prevent diseases or to detect and treat these at an early stage. In order to create a unique resource for epidemiological research, the Helmholtz Health Research has initiated the development of a major prospective national Cohort Study in Germany. The following Centres participated in the initiative alongside university partners: the German Cancer Research Centre, the Helmholtz Centre Munich, the Max Delbrück Center Berlin-Buch as well as the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research.

Translational Research
The Helmholtz Health Centres adopt a leading role in the field of translational research both nationally and internationally. With the development of local translation centres in cooperation with university hospitals, infrastructure platforms have been created, which will decidedly accelerate the transfer of relevant findings from basic research into clinical applications. The formation of strategic alliances with partners from the pharmaceutical industry, biotechnology and medical technology also considerably reinforces the expertise in this field. The long-term collaboration of Helmholtz Health Centres with partners from university medicine and other research institutions will experience a new dimension with the impending establishment of German Centres of Health Research.

Personalized Medicine
The Helmholtz Cross-Program Initiative Personalized Medicine iMed will provide a common platform for high-throughput and information technologies, thereby strengthening the individual medical research disciplines in each center. Joint activities in cancer, metabolic and cardiovascular diseases, infectious and diseases of the nervous system will focus on:

- molecular diagnostics, risk stratification and primary prevention
- individualized therapy
- secondary prevention and outcomes

Large population studies will provide insights into genetic and environmental risk factors for these widespread diseases. By combining the complementary research strengths and technological prowess of participating Helmholtz centers and local partners from university medicine, iMed will generate considerable added value for each research program. iMed will allow the development of risk-adjusted programs for prevention and early diagnosis, thereby enabling targeted interventions even prior to the manifestation of clinical disease.

Insights into Research Field Health

Here, we present projects currently being carried out by scientists at the Helmholtz Centres.

Precise 3D images of the body in real-time

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As shown here, physicians can use MSOT technology to monitor tumours and the surrounding vessels without exposing patients to radiation or performing surgery.
Image: Institute of Biological and Medical Imaging, Helmholtz Zentrum München

Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health

A team of scientists from the Helmholtz Zentrum München has developed a technology to analyse the molecular and physiological properties of tissues in real time and in three dimensions. It enables them, for example, to monitor the spread of drugs through the body and to determine the oxygen saturation of blood and tissues non-invasively.

These advances have been made possible by multispectral optoacoustic tomography (MSOT). This imaging technique uses weak laser pulses to slightly warm the target tissue. As a result, the tissue briefly expands and generates ultrasonic signals, which the scientists detect with corresponding sensors and translate into 3D images. This enables them to monitor the development of diseases such as cancer directly in patients without surgery or radiation exposure. “MSOT has demonstrated initial success in detecting lymph node metastases in melanoma patients,” says Vasilis Ntziachristos, director of the Institute for Biological and Medical Imaging and professor of Biological Imaging at the Technical University of Munich. “Thanks to MSOT, we can now detect cancer without surgery.” Further clinical studies are currently underway in a variety of application fields, including breast and thyroid cancer and peripheral atherosclerosis.

MSOT is also providing the basis for two research spin-offs at the Helmholtz Zentrum München. iThera Medical GmbH, founded in 2010, and DermaSight, which is set to begin operations in the end of 2016, will produce detailed live images of the human body. In 2014, iThera won the “Startup” category of the German Innovation Awards. “These two spin-offs show how scientists can succeed in quickly translating research findings into social and economic benefits,” says Günther Wess, scientific director of the Helmholtz Zentrum München.

In early 2016, Ntziachristos received his second prestigious ERC Advanced Grant to continue developing MSOT. In the future, he and his team hope to develop a low-cost portable device for the point-of-care diagnosis of patients and will also attempt to depict inflammatory, metabolic and neurobiological processes in real time.


New blood vessels require pressure to form

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New capillaries forming at the edge of a mouse r etina. Image: Véronique Gebala

Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC)

When capillaries sprout from existing blood vessels, they initially consist of a series of individual cells without an internal cavity. The team led by MDC researcher Holger Gerhardt has discovered that blood presses the membrane of vascular cells inward, forming a continuous hollow tube. As this infolding spreads into the cell, it actively pushes back smaller branches using protein fibres. The newly discovered process could explain pathological angiogenesis in cancer and diabetes.


Herpesviruses do not undermine immune protection in old age

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Placental tissue section in which a cytomegalovirus infection has caused placentitis. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Ed Uthman

Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI)

Most people carry the cytomegalovirus, which is a member of the herpes family. After an infection, it stays in the body for life. It was previously unclear whether this chronic infection permanently weakened the immune defense against new pathogens, thus impairing immune protection in old age. In a study involving old mice, researchers at the HZI under group leader Luka Cicin-Sain have now shown that animals with chronic herpes infections can fend off new pathogens just as well as animals that do not carry the virus.


The mechanism behind radon therapy

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Patients undergoing radon therapy in the Healing Galler y in Bad Gestein.
Image: Gasteinertal Tourismus GmbH

GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research

The GREWIS project, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and supervised by GSI researchers, is studying the effects and risks of radon therapy. Patients undergo radon therapy to treat chronic inflammatory diseases of the musculoskeletal system, the respiratory tract and the skin. The project aims to explain the largely unknown mechanism inhibiting inflammation and to better assess the cancer risk of low doses of radon.


Precisely destroying tumours

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Proton therapy is well suited to treat brain tumours due to its great precision. Image: HZDR

Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR)

Due to its great precision, irradiation with protons is considered a particularly gentle form of radiation therapy. However, up to now it has not been possible to accurately monitor the penetration depth of protons during treatment. Researchers at the OncoRay research centre and the HZDR in Dresden have now managed to do so for the first time. Using a slit camera, they were able to measure the gamma radiation when protons decelerate. In future, the improved precision will make cancer treatment possible in highly sensitive parts of the body.


Preventing networks of cancer cells

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3D representation of a g lioblastoma: the cancer cells in t he network (blue) are connected by long microtubes (pink). The tumour cells and microtubes outside the network are shown in dark gray and light g ray, respectively. Image: M. Osswald/DKFZ

German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ)

Scientists cooperating with Frank Winkler from the DKFZ and Heidelberg University Hospital have shown that the tumour cells of extremely malignant glioblastoma are connected by long cell extensions. The brain tumour cells communicate through this network, protecting themselves from damage inflicted by treatment. When researchers blocked these connections, the cancer cells invaded the brain less aggressively and responded better to radiation therapy. The researchers published their findings in Nature.


Alzheimer risk influences brain navigation system

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Risk gene for Alzheimer’s influences orientation behaviour. Image: Bureau BlauwGeel

German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE)

DZNE researchers have discovered unusual activity in the entorhinal cortex of young adults with a genetically increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease (ApoE4 carriers). This region of the brain plays an important role in spatial navigation. The affected individuals’ orientation behaviour in a virtual landscape was demonstrated to be altered. In other words, the orientation problems typical of Alzheimer’s could make themselves known in subtle ways long before clinical symptoms appear.

Contact

Prof. Dr. Günther Wess

Research field coordinator Health

Helmholtz Zentrum München - German Research Center for Environmental Health

Ingolstädter Landstraße 1
85764 Neuherberg

Phone: +49 89 3187-4409
inaumann (at) helmholtz-muenchen.de
http://www.helmholtz-muenchen....


Dr. Phillip Hahn

Research Field Health

Helmholtz Association

Phone: +49 30 206329-15
phillip.hahn (at) helmholtz.de


08.12.2016