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.

Intestinal flora as a cause of chronic inflammation

Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI)

Under the right circumstances, more than 1,000 kinds of different bacteria live in the intestinal microbiome in peaceful coexistence with their human host, promote digestion, and even support the proper functioning of the immune system. However, this is not the case for patients with intestinal disorders such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis: Studies have shown that these individuals’ intestines exhibit reduced microbial diversity and alterations in the composition of the communities. This has been linked to an overreaction of the immune system to the bacteria in the intestine of genetically susceptible individuals and eventually to chronic inflammatory bowel disease. Some 300,000 people suffer from this condition in Germany. Unfortunately, no curative treatment is currently available, only symptom-based care. The medication provided typically consists of immune suppressants, which often make these individuals more susceptible to infections. Based on experiments on mice, researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) have now shown that different types of alterations in the microbiome promote intestinal inflammation via different arms of the immune system. "The severe inflammatory reactions in the intestine are triggered by certain microbial communities. In order to recommend appropriate treatment, it is important to understand whether the existing microbial community is stimulating the innate or acquired immune system to produce a response and inflammation," says Professor Till Strowig, head of the department "Microbial Immune Regulation" at the HZI. The researchers succeeded in finding evidence of these correlations in immune-deficient mice, in which vital molecular switches for the immune system were disabled. These findings are relevant in terms of treating the disease in affected individuals, because modern treatment approaches rely on so-called biologicals, which block individual molecules and thereby exert a targeted influence on the immune system.

"In the future, we want to gain a more detailed understanding of which individual types of bacteria are responsible for the various types of chronic inflammatory bowel diseases," says Strowig. The researchers therefore search for additional ways of blocking and controlling misdirected immune responses and are exploring novel ways to properly stimulate the immune system to prevent infections in immunocompromised individuals via manipulations of the microbiome. Extensive cohort studies must still be carried out in order to arrive at a clinical application and treatment recommendation.

Toward individualized cancer treatment

Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR)

Combining the positron emission tomography imaging method with FMISO, a molecule labeled with a radioactive tracer, makes it easier to predict the outcome of treatment in patients with head and neck tumors. The timing of the examination plays a crucial role here, as demonstrated by researchers at the HZDR during a cooperative project. Images recorded in the second week after the start of treatment are the most conclusive. Based on the prognosis, doctors are able to tailor cancer therapies on a more individual basis.

MRI with a sugar solution

German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ)

Researchers at DKFZ and Heidelberg University Hospital have succeeded in detecting brain tumors using a new MRI procedure that involves a simple sugar solution rather than the usual contrast agent. Around five sugar cubes are sufficient to observe a change in the glucose signal in cancer foci when using a seven-Tesla high field MRI scanner. Tumor areas that are growing particularly aggressively can even be identified. This procedure makes it possible to take measurements via a selective strengthening of the glucose signal – without exposing patients to radiation.

How naked mole-rats resist anoxia

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

When naked mole-rats lack air to breathe in their dens, they are able to temporarily supply organs like the heart and brain with energy without relying on oxygen. They do this by switching their metabolism from glucose to fructose, according to a paper in the scientific journal Science written by Gary Lewin’s team at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC). As a result, the animals do not suffer any damage. This mechanism also has the potential to protect patients against the consequences of hypoxia caused by a heart attack or stroke.

New substance to combat sleeping sickness

Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health

Researchers at the Helmholtz Zentrum München have developed a new therapy approach which uses a targeted method to kill the pathogen that causes sleeping sickness. As reported in Science magazine, the team led by Michael Sattler and Grzegorz Popowicz first used cutting-edge methods from the field of structural biology to identify a molecular Achilles heel of the parasite, the so-called PEX protein. They then collaborated with international partners to develop a substance that inhibits the interaction necessary for the parasite’s survival.

Immune mechanisms of nervous diseases

German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE)

Researchers at DZNE have proven that immune mechanisms play a major role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. According to their research, the "NLRP3 inflammasome" – a sensor of the innate immune system – promotes the deposit of damaging proteins in the brain. A further study shows that a diet high in fat and calories activates the inflammasome and increases the immune system's susceptibility over the long term due to genetic reprogramming. This can contribute to the development of chronic inflammatory diseases – especially neurodegenerative disorders.

Diesel ban for better air quality?

Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ

A large share of anthropogenic nitrogen oxide emissions are produced by diesel road traffic in cities that do not have a significant inland shipping sector. Epidemiological studies show that these emissions represent an additional health risk. Small-scale driving restrictions can reduce emissions on streets where levels are particularly high and provide relief for groups of people who are most affected by them. However, reducing air pollution caused by particulate matter – in which other sources such as small heaters frequently play a prominent role – is more significant in terms of public health.

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