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From left to right: Thomas Prinzler, Prof. Dr. Christian Hackenberger, Dr. Jobst Röhmel and Prof. Dr. Jeanette Schulz-Menger bei der Aufzeichnung des LNDW-Podcast im Klinikum Buch | Photo: LNDW/LHLK 2020

From left to right: Thomas Prinzler, Prof. Dr. Christian Hackenberger, Dr. Jobst Röhmel and Prof. Dr. Jeanette Schulz-Menger | Photo: LNDW/LHLK 2020

Corona, cancer, and co. – challenges for medicine (episode five of the LNDW-podcast)

Berlin health research ranks among the best in the world. The three universities and numerous research institutes of Berlin develop new therapies that allow for a more gentle and effective treatment of diseases. In the 5th edition of the LNDW-podcast, we present parts of this research. As is inevitable in a year such as 2020, we also take into consideration the current coronavirus research as well as the negative and positive consequences that COVID-19 may have for medical research.

Cardio MRI: ‘The gentle look into the heart’

‘The worst thing that is happening due to COVID-19 at the moment is that patients with other diseases do not dare to go to hospitals for treatment,’ answers Prof. Dr. Jeanette Schulz-Menger when asked how corona has changed her everyday working life. She is a university professor at the Charité and head of non-invasive heart imaging at the Helios Klinikum Berlin-Buch. With her team, she has developed the so-called cardiovascular magnetic resonance imaging (cardiac MRI or cardio MRI) as one of the most important procedures in heart imaging. ‘With cardio MRI, we can, for example, see an inflammation on the heart. We can also recognise if someone has small scars on their heart. This allows us to assess why someone has cardiac rhythm disturbances or breathlessness or whether such disturbances could occur in the future. In stress tests we can also check if someone has circulatory problems and see if someone is at risk of having a heart attack. In the program, Prof. Schulz-Menger also talks about Berlin as a science location and points out: ‘Although Berlin does not have any natural resources and is not very industrial, Berlin does have an incredible amount of brains, heads, and minds. If we bring those together, we can be quite invincible!’

Why are children rarely severely ill with COVID-19?

‘There seems to be a cross-reactivity between influenza coronaviruses and the new coronavirus,’ explains Dr. Jobst Röhmel, referring in his hypothesis to results of the corona cross study of the Charité. ‘This could result in a mechanism that contributes to children becoming much less susceptible to corona, as children are more likely to be exposed to influenza coronaviruses.’ As a specialist at the paediatric clinic with a focus on pneumology and immunology at the Charité, he was surprised that even children with lung diseases are not more at risk from the new corona virus than other children. In a further study, he and his colleagues will follow the corona cross study to gain further insights into possible background immunity. The corona cross study is part of the project ‘The Simulated Human,’ a cooperation between the Technical University of Berlin (Biotechnology) and the Charité (Medicine). The aim of this project is to develop human models to be able to test human medical agents. Among other things, mini organs are mounted on computer chips (‘Organ on Chips’). Another area is research into ‘3-D bioprinting,’ which lays the groundwork for the future production of tissues and organs through 3-D printers. Projects such as these reassure Dr. Röhmel about the future of medical research in Berlin: ‘The research conditions in Berlin have improved drastically over the past ten years. This is especially owed to the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) of the Charité and the Max Delbrück Centre. There is an influx of skilled researchers, a spirit of optimism, and this all has been strengthened by COVID-19.’

Prof. Dr. Christian Hackenberger at the recording of the LNDW-Podcasts at the Helios Hospital Berlin-Buch. | Photo: LNDW/LHLK 2020
Prof. Dr. Christian Hackenberger | Photo: LNDW/LHLK 2020

How to fight a virus with a virus

Using bioactive molecules to develop new active substances for treatment, prevention or diagnosis of diseases is one research priority of Prof. Dr. Christian Hackenberger, head of the ‘Chemical Biology’ department at the Leibniz Research Institute for Molecular Pharmacology (FMP). The chemist uses knowledge from chemistry to biology and focuses on medical research by chemically modifying proteins and antibodies, so that they can be used for therapeutic purposes. In the programme, Prof. Hackenberger reports, among other things, about the development of a method that could be used in the future for therapies to treat influenza patients. The method, developed by a multidisciplinary team of researchers in Berlin, is also currently being studied to fight the coronavirus. ‘We have been looking for a harmless virus that can switch off another harmful virus,’ explains Prof. Hackenberger. ‘This non-infectious virus is found in the intestines. By using chemistry, we put “adhesives” on this harmless virus to bind the harmful virus, so that the harmful virus can be completely wrapped and, thus, rendered harmless. This has worked well in trials with both human and avian influenza viruses.’ When asked what distinguishes Berlin as a science location, he answers concisely: ‘Networking: Our treasure in Berlin are the universities, the research institutes. With this advantage, we can get out of purely academic research and break new ground. Therefore, every initiative for networking is highly welcome.’ One example of this networking is the development of a ‘super glue’ for the so-called antibody-drug conjugates. With the help of this super-adhesive, cancer medication can be designed, for example, in such a way that they act more specifically against cancer while at the same time minimizing possible side effects. 

The podcast episodes are published online on the 6th of each month. The podcast is available on the ARD-Audiothek, iTunes, Spotify, Inforadio-App, Google Podcast, and other podcast platforms and apps as well as on the Brain City website.