In future, researchers in Erlangen will take into account a little-noted factor in the development of diseases: physics. The Centre for Physics and Medicine (ZPM) is being created in Erlangen to help scientists better understand the mechanical, electrical and chemical processes involved in inflammation and cancer with a view to improving diagnosis and treatment. In the presence of Ilse Aigner, Bavarian State Minister for Economic Affairs, Media, Energy and Technology, representatives of the Max Planck Society, Friedrich- Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) and University Hospital Erlangen signed a cooperation agreement on 25 July. The project is being funded by the Bavarian state government with 60 million euros. “I’m convinced that the Centre for Physics and Medicine will result in first-class scientific achievements – success that can ultimately be measured by medical progress that will benefit humankind – and perhaps us personally,” says Max Planck President Martin Stratmann.
Scientists at the Centre for Physics and Medicine will use physical and mathematical methods to investigate changes in cells that affect inflammation and other conditions. “The researchers will measure and model fundamental physical life processes, for example communication pathways and forces between cells in pathological tissue, in entirely new ways. We hope that by shedding light on these processes, we will gain knowledge that will lead to innovative treatments and drugs,” says Vahid Sandoghdar, Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light and one of the initiators of the new centre.
This marks a new strategy for medical research, and the researchers have found just the right environment for the approach in Erlangen: “Today’s top research requires new paths and innovative forms of cooperation. The Medical Valley − and Erlangen in particular − offer an optimum milieu for this. It is here that a Max Planck Institute was established from university research for the first time in Germany. Now the Max Planck Institute has, in turn, given rise to a unique cooperation between the University, University Hospital Erlangen and the Max Planck Society,” says Ilse Aigner, Bavarian Minister of Economic Affairs. “This allows us to progress from basic mathematical, physical and medical research to direct applications with patients.”
The ZPM will unite two worlds
According to current plans, the centre will house a new division at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Light, two new chairs for biophysics and mathematics in the life sciences, a new chair of medical physics at FAU and five new research groups. The state government of Bavaria is funding the centre’s construction and initial scientific equipment with 60 million euros.
“The new centre will unite two worlds: physics and medicine. Systemic and reductionist research approaches will meet, supporting outstanding representatives in their discipline and a desire to jointly overcome traditional research concepts,” says Max Planck President Martin Stratmann. Whereas physicists have been quite successful in reducing a system to such an extent that it allows them to pose precise questions that they can answer by experimentation, doctors have had to proceed systemically: they can only do justice to the complexity of their object of investigation by considering a broader system or even the entire body instead of just a precisely defined biological aspect that is as narrow as possible.
“The new Centre for Physics and Medicine will explore physical processes at the interface between two disciplines that play a role in diseases,” says Joachim Hornegger, President of FAU. “It will therefore be dedicated to a task that is part of the FAU programme: to jointly tackle problem areas with the help of outstanding research teams across disciplines and organizational boundaries. We can expect the new centre to produce exciting answers to medically relevant questions in the fields of biophysics, biomathematics and bioinformatics.”
Towards diagnostics and treatment
The fusion of diverse research approaches and cooperation between very different disciplines will also bring about a change in scientific culture, which is already reflected in the signing of the cooperation agreement, as explained by Jürgen Schüttler, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at FAU: “The keyword cooperation means that individuals are not muddling along on their own. Instead, each contributes their particular skills, special expertise and innovative ideas to a fruitful, synergistic collaboration. The Centre for Physics and Medicine is interdisciplinary in nature. It combines the expertise of everyone involved beyond subject-specific parochialism, which is still all too prevalent. Schüttler also points out another important aspect of the centre: “At the same time, the Centre for Physics and Medicine is translational, meaning that the research undertaken is clearly orientated towards the diagnosis and treatment of patients receiving care at University Hospital Erlangen.”
Even the location of the centre, which will be built on the site of the University Hospital Erlangen, symbolizes proximity to patients as a special feature of the project. The Centre for Physics and Medicine in Erlangen will be unique in the world, as it will bring together physicists and mathematicians close to University Hospital Erlangen with doctors,” says Vahid Sandoghdar. Heinrich Iro, Medical Director and Chairman of the Board of the University Hospital, considers the location of the centre to be a great advantage of the project: “Basic research and patient-relevant questions can be optimally linked in the new centre. The planned building situated among the clinic that deals with neurology, psychiatry and neurosurgery, the eye clinic and the internal medicine centre ensures short distances and close exchange between research and clinicians. For our patients at University Hospital Erlangen this means that they will be the first to benefit from the research findings of the new centre.”
An opportunity for science and industry
The centre will not only facilitate cooperation between physicists and doctors and improve medical care for patients. It will also benefit the town of Erlangen. “I’m pleased that we are taking the next step towards this cutting-edge research institute by concluding a cooperation agreement on the Centre for Physics and Medicine” says Mayor Florian Janik. “The cooperation between research and applied medicine, which is planned here, is exemplary worldwide and is a great opportunity for Erlangen as a key location for science and research.”
Ilse Aigner also believes that intensifying research at the interface between physics and medicine and the developing new diagnostic methods could boost the region’s economy: “The insights gained can be exploited by the many companies in the region, not just medical technology, and translated into marketable products and services. This will strengthen the innovative capacity of Medical Valley and Bavaria’s international reputation as an outstanding research and high-tech location.”
Professor Vahid Sandoghdar, MPL