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When people in Europe are asked which issues scientists should focus on with the greatest urgency in the next 15 years, the priorities are clear: besides tackling unemployment, they should devote themselves above all to questions of health and medical care. This was the finding of a survey conducted on behalf of the European Commission. Accordingly, people’s expectations of the progress science will make in this field are considerable.
The development process often takes decades
However, it usually takes decades before an initial idea for a new product – a novel drug or treatment method, for instance – becomes a reality. It is not unusual for biologists, neuroscientists, doctors, pharmacologists, computer scientists and other researchers to spend their entire careers working on an idea. They conduct experiments in the lab, publish their findings in journals and discuss them at conferences. Also, before a drug can be approved for treatment, it needs to be tested. Even applying for such patient studies can take years.
Shortening the path to application
Six Centres for Health Research (DZG) have been set up in Germany in the past ten years with a view to somewhat shortening this long and complicated path from research to application. One of them is the German Cancer Consortium (DKTK). More than 20 academic research institutes and university hospitals at seven locations cooperate in the network with the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, the consortium’s core centre.
Focusing on immunotherapies
One research focus is on developing immunotherapies, which involve activating the body’s own immune cells to fight the tumour cells. The hope is that this will allow forms of cancer to be treated in future that respond hardly at all to conventional methods such as chemo or radiation therapy. These include for example bone cancer and aggressive brain tumours.
Highly specialised labs
The network offers many advantages when it comes to developing such immunotherapies. For instance, the cancer researchers are supported in their work by central technical infrastructure such as the DKTK Cancer Genomics Core Facility in Mainz and Frankfurt am Main. There, tissue samples taken from the tumours of patients participating in clinical studies are subjected to a quick and reliable genetic analysis using the very latest equipment. To produce the vaccines that are intended to activate the body’s own immune defence, dedicated GMP facilities have been set up. These are special clean rooms in which officially approved pharmaceuticals can be produced in line with the EU guidelines for good manufacturing practice (GMP). Some of the vaccines are already being tested in clinical studies.
Cooperation with companies
More than a hundred universities, university hospitals and research institutions cooperate in the six Centres for Health Research. In addition, the scientists also work with institutions and firms outside the centres to improve prevention and treatment of widespread diseases. These include cancer, cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, infectious diseases, pulmonary disorders and neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia.
Jointly creating innovations
The InnoHealth Australia initiative also combines scientific expertise and business know-how for the sake of health. Earlier in 2018, ten research teams from Germany travelled to Melbourne to present their ideas in the forward-looking areas of eHealth and integrated care models, precision healthcare and individual health, antibiotic resistance and antimicrobial research. In a reciprocal step, Australian researchers working in these fields will be taking part in a one-week "innovation tour" through Germany. Australia, Germany’s partner country, is providing generous support for health research, with almost 16 billion US dollars in public funds being spent in this area by 2021.
Dr Sven Meister, a member of the scientific expert board and head of Digitization in HealthCare at the Fraunhofer Institute for Software and Systems Engineering (ISST), is confident that this will boost innovation on both sides: "Cooperation with Australian researchers and companies in the health sector offers many opportunities for us. And we in Germany are really good at engineering, with a lot of start-ups in this area. We hope to bring these ideas to the innovative Australian market and thereby push the development of healthcare solutions."