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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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