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Under one roof

 

The newly founded Berlin Institute of Health is poised to be one of the leading institutes for health research in Europe.

 

Laboratory for Medical Research at MDC building

It is a marriage of giants: Charité, Germany’s largest university clinic, and the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC), one of the biggest life science institutes in Berlin, will combine their research under one roof. The new structure will operate under the name Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) and will focus on systems medicine – a holistic and interdisciplinary approach that investigates the molecular mechanisms of disease. The new institute will receive significant funding of up to 300 million euros between 2013 and 2018 and 80 million euros per year afterwards from the German government.

“We have brought together the research of two institutions with complementary expertise,” comments Walter Rosenthal, Scientific Director of the MDC.  The MDC has always worked to link basic research and clinical applications; and Charité is a strong clinical partner with access to its own research department and the clinical data of three thousand patients. “It makes a lot of sense to have this joint institutional roof,” explains Rosenthal.

The MDC, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, has achieved a reputation as one of Europe’s leading centers for biomedical research. Several EMBO Members have joined the institute in its relatively short history and established research groups there (see also EMBOencounters Winter issue 2010/2011).  The spirit of collaboration with Charité goes back a long way. From the beginning, scientists from both institutions have worked hand in hand on projects related to cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, cancer, as well as on diseases of the nervous system. Since 2007 much of this work has been carried out as part of the jointly funded Experimental and Clinical Research Center.

BIH is expected to take on a pioneering role in Europe bringing translational and basic research together. But what does systems medicine look like in practice? “The starting point for studying complex diseases will be at the level of molecular systems and clinical observation or diagnosis of diseases and conditions such as heart failure, cancer or multiple sclerosis,” explains Walter Rosenthal, Scientific Director of the MDC. “The goal is to identify molecular signatures that are common to many different diseases. Systems medicine rejects the idea of ‘one disease-one mechanism’ and instead centers on the more complex notions of ‘one disease-several mechanisms’ and ‘one mechanism-several diseases’.” By looking at molecular signatures, for example five or ten parameters and not just one, the scientists hope to reduce failures in the treatment of cancer and other diseases and to minimize potential side effects in patients.

 

Finances and future investments

 

Bringing both partners together also has financial advantages. The German constitution does not allow universities to receive institutional funding from the national government and institutional  support has to come from the states. Charité, a university clinic, can therefore benefit from national funding via the merger with MDC, which belongs to the Helmholtz Association of National Research Centres and can receive support from the national government.

The focus will be on quality for research projects and employed staff. Researchers in both institutes will be entitled to apply for the additional funding in competition with external candidates – provided they conduct research on systems medicine. Every five years, all group leaders will have to give an account of their research and justify funding for another round of five years – similar to the approach of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the United States.

Significant resources will be invested in diverse –omics technologies, such as proteomics, genomics, and metabolomics. Large-scale automated biobanking is still needed. There is also a need for a bioinformatics platform, clinical informatics, and a clinical research unit where in- and outpatients are treated. “Substantial investments in buildings, space for infrastructure, and people also have to be made,” says Rosenthal. Asked for a similar example on the international stage he mentions the renowned Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT in Boston, United States. Berlin definitely has the capacity to be another first-class player in the international league.