Helmholtz Monthly 11/23
World Climate Summit in Dubai
20 Years of Helmholtz Young Investigator Groups
Development of a Retina-Like Biochip
Three questions for Sina Kürtz
Prevention: our most powerful weapon against cancer - Michael Baumann‘s point of view
Dear Readers,

among the more than 45,000 people who comprise the Helmholtz Association there are some unusual career paths. Sina Kürtz is a physicist and works at DLR in the promotion of young scientists. She also runs the successful YouTube channel “Sun, Death and Stars”, which primarily explains astrophysical phenomena such as gravitational waves and galaxy collisions to young girls and women. The channel is now part of Funk, the youth channel of ARD and ZDF. You can find out more about Sina Kürtz in this newsletter. Also: Retina-like biochips - researchers at Forschungszentrum Jülich have succeeded in developing an intelligent biochip that mimics the retina of the eye. And: Prevention is our most powerful weapon against cancer - a viewpoint from Michael Baumann, Chairman of the German Cancer Research Center.

Martin Trinkaus, Senior Online Manager
Talk of the Month
World Climate Summit in Dubai
  The UN World Climate Summit starts today in Dubai. According to UNEP estimates, the earth is heading for warming of 2.5 to 2.9 degrees Celsius with the current climate protection commitments - a far cry from the Paris target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. The hope is that resolutions and commitments will be made in Dubai that will bring us closer to the targets. Helmholtz researchers are involved in the IPCC at various levels and are monitoring the process. Among others, Reimund Schwarze from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research is on site to report on the negotiations. A comment of Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of an IPCC working group, can be read on helmholtz.de. The Helmholtz Climate Initiative provides further information and a list of experts on its website.
AI strategy of the BMBF
  The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) presented its AI action plan in the middle of the month. A central element of this plan is high-performance computers of the exascale class, such as the planned JUPITER at Forschungszentrum Jülich. AI applications require enormous computing capacities that are often not accessible to research projects and companies. JUPITER is the first European supercomputer in this league and is scheduled to be ready for operation in fall 2024. At the presentation of the strategy, Thomas Lippert from Forschungszentrum Jülich emphasized the importance of opening up computing capacities for commercial applications, as announced in the action plan.
Start-up funding for PETRA IV
  As far as federal funding is concerned, hardly anything is certain these days. However, the start-up funding for the new PETRA IV X-ray microscope at DESY is a groundbreaking decision. The budget committee released 40 million euros in its adjustment meeting on November 17. The funds can be used to implement preparatory measures, such as the design of a prototype. PETRA IV is intended to make structures visible down to the atomic level and thus drastically accelerate the development of new technologies and materials.
What are the grand challenges of our time? And what solutions are we developing at Helmholtz? Discover our challenges 
Helmholtz Community
20 years of Helmholtz Young Investigator Groups
  Careers in science are primarily decided in the postdoc phase, when scientists are working towards a professorship. The prerequisite for this is successful independent research. Helmholtz has been supporting this important career stage for 20 years with its Young Investigator Groups program. A total of 265 groups have been funded since the start of the program. We asked some of the program’s participants about their experiences.
Breaking the Wall of Obesity - Talk by Matthias Tschöp at Falling Walls
  From November 7 to 9, scientists met again in Berlin for the Falling Walls Science Summit - including several Helmholtz researchers. The aim of the conference is to highlight the potential of science to tackle the greatest challenges of our time. Matthias Tschöp, Managing Director of Helmholtz Munich, Vice President of the Helmholtz Association and discoverer of the gut hormone ghrelin, spoke about the new anti-obesity drugs and their importance in combating the diabetes epidemic. The lecture was recorded and is available online.
Living diversity. Strengthening science. Inclusion initiative
  People with disabilities are still underrepresented in research. The Alliance of Science Organizations has launched an initiative to change this. The initial focus is on internal reflection on the causes and a digital career event. The activities will be visible to the outside world primarily through a social media campaign that will be rolled out in the coming weeks.
Award for Citizen Science projects
  Two Helmholtz scientists have been honored by Wissenschaft im Dialog and the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin for joint research projects with citizens. Christopher Kyba from the GFZ is researching light pollution and is co-author of a study published in the journal Science in 2023, which, with the help of tens of thousands of citizens, proves that the visibility of stars has rapidly decreased due to light pollution between 2021 and 2022. Anna Natalie Meyer from the AWI, who is investigating the spread of plastic waste on Svalbard with the help of citizen scientists, also received an award.
Development of a Retina-Like Biochip
An international team led by Jülich researcher Francesca Santoro has developed an intelligent biochip that imitates the retina of the eye. With such bioelectronics and others like it, the team hopes to correct malfunctions in the body and brain. 

The chip - created as a joint effort by scientists from Forschungszentrum Jülich, RWTH Aachen University, Istituto italiano di tecnologia and the University of Naples - is based on conductive polymers and light-sensitive molecules that can be used to imitate the retina, complete with visual pathways. 

“Our organic semiconductor recognizes how much light falls on it. Something similar happens in our eye. The amount of light that hits the individual photoreceptors ultimately creates the image in the brain,” explains Santoro, What is exceptional about the new semiconductor: it consists entirely of non-toxic organic components, is flexible and works with ions, that is, with charged atoms or molecules. It can thus be integrated into biological systems much better than conventional semiconductor components made of silicon, which are rigid and only work with electrons. 

Our body cells specifically use ions to control certain processes and exchange information,” explains the researcher. However, the development is, so far, only a “proof-of-concept”, she emphasizes. The material was synthesized and then characterized: “We were able to show that the typical properties of the retina can be imitated with it,” she says.

The researchers are already thinking about another possible application: the chip could also function as an artificial synapse as light irradiation changes the conductivity of the polymer that is used in the short and long term. Real synapses work in a similar way: by passing on electrical signals, they change their size and efficiency, for example, which is the basis for our brain’s learning and memory capacity. Santoro is looking ahead: “In future experiments, we want to couple the components with biological cells and connect many individual ones together.”

(Image: Instituta Italiano di Techonologica)

Published in Nature Communications


First images from Euclid
ESA’s Euclid mission is delivering images from the nearer regions of our universe for the first time. The probe specializes in observing areas of the sky that are more than a hundred times larger than what the infrared camera of the James Webb telescope can achieve. The aim of the mission is to explore dark matter and dark energy in space. The German Space Agency at DLR is responsible for coordinating the German ESA contributions and is funding one of the telescope’s two instruments. Read more 

Heart repair via neuroimmune crosstalk 
Unlike in humans, zebrafish hearts can fully regenerate after damage. Researchers led by Suphansa Sawamiphak from the Max Delbrück Center have discovered that this is due to the interaction between the nervous and immune systems. The team now hopes to find targets to preserve the function of the heart of heart attack patients. Read more

One of 45.000

Sina Kürtz is a physicist working on the German Aerospace Center’s promotion of young scientists. She is also a science journalist and hosts the YouTube channel “Sonne, Tod und Sterne” (Sun, Death and Stars). (Photo: DLR)

What is the most exciting thing about your job?

To generate enthusiasm! In DLR’s promotion of young scientists, we often work on projects where we experience the children’s feedback live, such as the DLR_Raumfahrt_Show. It’s always exciting to see whether our own enthusiasm for research and science also infects the target group. How can we arouse curiosity, how can we give them a “Wow” experience and spark that twinkle in their eyes? A group of schoolgirls took part in the Science Year 2023 projects, some of whom had already dropped physics as a school subject. Their interests really changed again afterwards, I was very pleased about that!

If money and time were no object, what would your next project be?

The biggest science festival in the world especially for schoolchildren! We rent a site the size of Frankfurt Airport and then there’s a week of workshops, talks, panels, experiment stations, games, music, science slams and everything to do with science, the future and research. Overnight accommodation is included and in the evening there’s either an Interstellar movie night followed by an astrophysics talk or a party and networking event with people from research and science. It’s best to do all this during the first week after the summer vacation. During this week, the pupils may even decide for themselves what the science curriculum should include in the coming school year.

Who would you like to have dinner with and what would you talk about then?

Can it also be someone from history? I always wanted to meet Leonardo da Vinci. Someone like him, who was both an artist and a scientist, would certainly have great ideas for science communication in 2023!

Point of View
Prevention - our most powerful weapon against cancer
Our healthcare system still focuses too much on “fixing” cancer, although many cancer diseases could be avoided through prevention and early detection. Michael Baumann, Director of the German Cancer Research Center, explains why we are lagging so far behind in terms of prevention and what we need to do to drive research and application forward.

In the next twenty years, the number of cancer cases worldwide will increase significantly. In Germany, we currently have around 510,000 new cases of cancer every year, and more than 200,000 people die from cancer. By 2030, we expect to see around 600,000 new cases of cancer every year.

Around 40 percent of all new cases of cancer in Germany are attributable to a few preventable cancer risk factors: Tobacco consumption, an unhealthy diet, obesity, lack of exercise, high alcohol consumption and certain infections. Consistent primary prevention can prevent a large proportion of these cases, while the causes of the remaining 60 percent of cancer cases are not yet fully understood.

The healthcare system in Germany, as in most industrialized countries, is primarily geared towards the treatment of diseases, as expressed by the term “reparative medicine”, yet our most powerful weapons against cancer are prevention and early detection. Unfortunately, however, there is a glaring lack of long-term and targeted prevention research in Germany, and the implementation of our knowledge is also inadequate.

There is a lack of coordinated, long-term information campaigns and accompanying evaluation research. There is a lack of programs that are targeted at different population groups and that reach people with a particularly high risk of cancer. We need suitable structures and the political will to make it easier for people to lead a healthy lifestyle and to motivate them to take advantage of early cancer detection.

Fields of action with an increased need for research

There is a need for research to answer key prevention questions: How does cancer develop and at which molecular “adjusting screws” can this process be stopped? What motivates people to avoid known cancer risk factors? How can tumors be detected even earlier? What increases health literacy at an individual and system level? What potential does digitalization offer for cancer prevention? To make progress in these fields, advances in data analysis and data management are necessary.

The National Cancer Prevention Center, which we are establishing in Heidelberg together with German Cancer Aid, will be an important hub and leader of cancer prevention research in Germany, but it cannot accomplish these tasks alone. In order to tackle this major challenge for a healthier future, we need further support from the life sciences and medicine, as well as the expertise of data scientists, educators, psychologists and other specialist disciplines. 

A consistently cancer-preventive lifestyle demands a lot from each individual. However, research findings and the resulting appeals to individual insight are only part of the solution. After all, the environment and social factors make it easier or more difficult for people to follow prevention recommendations. That is why we are equally committed to legislation that makes it easier for everyone to lead a health-conscious life through the use of incentives, taxation or advertising restrictions. Because even if the successes of cancer prevention only become visible in the statistics after decades, the same applies to every individual: If you decide to adopt a healthier lifestyle, you immediately reduce your lifetime risk of developing cancer!

(Photo: Uwe Anspach)

Read in Browser
X Mastodon LinkedIn
Newsletter auf Deutsch abonnieren 

Published by: Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, Anna-Louisa-Karsch-Str.2, 10178 Berlin

Questions to the editors should be sent to monthly@helmholtz.de

No subscription yet? Click here to register

If you no longer wish to receive our newsletter, simply click here: Unsubscribe

© Helmholtz

Legal information