Prof. Martin Lohse is the Chairman of the Board of Directors and Scientific Director of the MDC since April 2016. He talks about his plans for the research center in an interview with the capus magazine buch inside, reproduced below.
Prof. Lohse, what were your first impressions of the MDC and of the Buch campus in your new role?
I was happy about how warmly I was received, and about the many proposals and initiatives that were brought to my attention. The MDC and other institutions on the campus welcomed the fact that someone new has come along who is keen to tackle a variety of projects in collaboration with the various participants here.
Will you continue to personally conduct scientific research at the MDC?
I want to try to sustain that side of my work as far as possible. I am a committed scientist, and it is important to me that the working group leaders and the other people working at the MDC continue to regard me as a scientist. It is essential for us all to be on the same page and that we discuss things as fellow scientists. I think that’s the only way to credibly lead the center.
With which research topics will the MDC be making its mark in the future?
The MDC working group leaders and I have initiated a discussion process to identify future research topics and decide which new technologies to build on. One important focus will certainly be systemic diseases – diseases that can only be understood and treated if we consider more than just the organ that seems to be primarily afflicted. A particularly good example is chronic heart failure. Treatment here focuses on many other organs but hardly on the weak heart itself. The therapy can only work if the organism as a whole is considered. This can be shown with the following example. Recently, we described a biochemical mechanism that leads to heart muscle growth and can thus trigger a certain form of the disease. This mechanism also seems to promote malignant tumor growth. We hope to be able to block this mechanism one day, but before we do that we must be aware of the possible side effects. This form of cancer treatment might, for example, make the heart stop growing. The MDC is the ideal institution for exploring strategies like this one that offer so much promise for the future. It pools an extremely wide range of expertise and technology and many perspectives on the human organism. Together, these factors can give us an integrative understanding of many diseases.
What technologies will be particularly important in the future?
As biomedical research pioneers, we must constantly adopt new technologies and also develop them ourselves in order to enable scientific breakthroughs. It is important that we are not only regarded as researchers who make interesting and exciting findings, but as innovators who are advancing technologies – at the international level, too. One example is new techniques in microscopy, which I would like to see established here at the MDC. These technologies provide an entirely new understanding of health and disease processes, as they make structures in living organisms visible whose existence we were not previously aware of. That’s why we want to give greater weight to various imaging methods over the next few years.
The MDC works closely with Charité Berlin in both the Experimental and Clinical Research Center (ECRC) and the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH). How will this collaboration look in the future?
The ECRC is an established structure that has developed very positively and is very important for the MDC. It is a hub for clinicians and basic researchers where they can share methods and opinions, ask questions, and inspire one another. It’s a good example of how translational research can work. The BIH is being built up from scratch, which has been a massive task for everyone involved. The BIH is currently in the process of establishing its scientific focus. This will primarily be the collection of large amounts of data on individual patients and groups of patients in order to gain new insight into various diseases. The MDC and the ECRC have been following a complementary approach, which involves working on the basis of hypotheses and smaller amounts of data. The two approaches are intended to produce synergetic effects: the BIH will generate hypotheses from a large pool of data, thus creating material that the MDC and the ECRC groups consisting of researchers from Charité and MDC will use in order to experimentally prove or disprove those hypotheses. This interplay of data-driven and hypothesis-driven research is a very promising approach for all sides. In the future there will be research projects funded by the BIH, but there will also be many projects funded from other sources. That will be the case at the Charité and at the MDC; it is only by looking at all of these individual components together that we can see the full spectrum of what is feasible, interesting and significant in today’s medical research.
What focuses do you see in the future development of the science and biotech campus?
Experiences in recent years both in Germany and abroad have shown that there are only a few places where a biotech start-up scene can be successful. The leading locations in Germany are Martinsried, Heidelberg and Berlin – or, more precisely, Berlin-Buch. The Buch campus offers the ideal conditions for results from basic research to find their way into application. These include the close cooperation with clinical researchers in the ECRC and the BIH as well as the BiotechPark and its established infrastructure. In order to make the best-possible use of this potential, we want to promote spin-offs on the campus and intensify our cooperation with established industry partners.
How do you aim to promote spin-offs?
At the MDC there are a number of discoveries that are ripe for further development into medical technologies or drugs. We are thinking about how we can give these topics and projects the best chances for a successful future. One step in this direction is to realize some of them as pilot projects and thus find out what works well. Many aspects need to be considered here. What are the first steps a project like this needs to take on the road from publication to patent? How can a patent become a project that can attract external funding to found a spin-off? How can we give researchers who are keen to embark on such projects a perspective? Could we establish interim steps between academic research and the foundation of a new company? We are interested not only in having researchers work for companies, but also for people from companies to approach the MDC with their ideas. That is why we’re thinking of establishing an incubator to get application-oriented projects underway and find out if they can be successful before trying to acquire large sums of external funding.