German Science and Humanities Council recommends joint research building for Charité and Freie Universität Berlin
Joint press release by Charité and Freie Universität Berlin
Anticipate diseases. Understand mechanisms of health. Keep people healthy for longer. This is what the future of medicine aims to provide. Top researchers from Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and Freie Universität Berlin will soon be working across disciplines to tackle these urgent issues. A historic building in the southwest of Berlin will provide the location for this future vision of health research. Once renovated and refurbished, the former Institute for Hygiene and Microbiology will house the Berlin Center for the Biology of Health (BC-BH). Today, the German Science and Humanities Council recommended the application for funding of the joint research building amounting to around 54 million euros.*
This represents a serious paradigm shift. The current concept of medicine was decisively shaped at the end of the eighteenth century by scholar and physician Rudolf Virchow (1821–1902). It is based on the idea that the origin of diseases lies in disruptions to the normal functions of cells. Ever since, medicine has focused on the mechanisms that cause diseases. The therapeutic approach of interrupting these disease-promoting signaling networks has continued to prove a success.
“This concept of medicine holds a paradox though, i.e., that our molecular understanding of health is almost exclusively based on the research of diseases,” says basic scientist Professor Andreas Diefenbach, Director of the Institute of Microbiology, Infectious Diseases, and Immunology at Charité. Professor Diefenbach initiated the application for a joint research building together with Professor Britta Siegmund, who is the Medical Director of the Medical Department, Division of Gastroenterology, Infectiology, and Rheumatology at Charité, and their research colleagues from Freie Universität Berlin. They want to establish a location for exchange and innovation. It will be financed by the federal and state governments in accordance with Article 91b of the Grundgesetz, Germany’s Basic Law. Instead of researching illness mechanisms, the focus will be on the mechanisms of health and molecular strategies of maintaining health.
“We are in the middle of a fundamental social and ecological transformation that calls for a new approach to medicine,” says Professor Diefenbach, who also holds a professorship from the Einstein Foundation Berlin. “An aging population, new lifestyles, and rapidly changing environmental conditions are causing a rise in illnesses that already account for a large part of the disease burden in Europe. This mainly includes chronically inflammatory, rheumatologic, and neurodegenerative diseases, as well as metabolic and cardiovascular diseases.” One way out of this situation is to introduce new strategies in medicine that make use of molecular mechanisms that preserve health and allow diseases to be detected earlier.
This new way of thinking in life sciences is a current trend seen across the world. Health is increasingly being seen as a process that is always based on active molecular and cellular mechanisms known as hallmarks of health. These health-preserving networks are fundamentally different to those that promote the onset of diseases. They make up a group of communicating mechanisms that strengthen our organism’s resistance and tolerance to disease and thus stabilize the healthy state.
“We want to gain access to precisely these health-preserving mechanisms so we can prevent and treat illnesses, and give people as long a healthy lifespan as possible,” says Professor Siegmund explaining the BC-BH cause. Geared toward joint interdisciplinary work and located on the Charité Campus Benjamin Franklin, the research center will track down these mechanisms and investigate their dysfunction among sufferers of inflammatory systemic diseases. This approach has never been taken before in Germany, nor in any other country.
Today, the German Science and Humanities Council, Germany’s leading science politics advisory committee, announced its support for funding of the plan. On the basis of this recommendation, the Joint Science Conference (Gemeinsame Wissenschaftskonferenz, GWK) will ultimately decide on financing of the research building. The costs will be shared equally by the German federal government and the State of Berlin.
“In this important research building, scientists from Freie Universität and Charité will research the molecular fundamentals and mechanisms of health. Placing healthy body functions at the center of research work is a new and visionary objective,” says Ulrike Gote, who is the Berlin Senator for Science, Health, Care and Equality, and also Chairperson of the Charité Supervisory Board. “This innovative approach adopted by the Berlin researchers shows the international standing of health research in Berlin. This is also a significant new perspective for patient care and therefore for Berlin as a place where people go to seek health experts. So, I’m delighted that the German Science and Humanities Council has recommended another research building in Berlin for funding – this time located at Charité’s Campus Benjamin Franklin in the southwest of the city. I am particularly happy that, for the first time, the research building funding scheme is not for constructing a new building, but that a historic building is being refurbished in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.”
Researchers from Charité and Freie Universität Berlin will use the BC-BH together. It will establish operations in Freie Universität’s former Institute for Hygiene and Microbiology – a prominent building featuring modernist architecture from the post-war period that has gained landmark status. Following refurbishment and conversion, the building will hold laboratories and spaces for reflection accommodating around 150 staff and researchers. The total workspace for the seventeen work groups and eight early-career researchers groups measures about 3,170 square meters. The architecture, which is already organic in style, along with the open laboratory structures should help bring together staff from all the relevant disciplines and enable exchanges on all levels.
Within the building, scientific fields such as clinical medicine, microbiology, immunology, biology, biochemistry, and biophysics will all be examined using cutting-edge technology, like individual cell analysis or metabolomics. Analytic disciplines like system biology, bioinformatics, modeling, and machine learning will also play a major role. “We’ve opted for a highly interactive research space because synergy effects will be created at the points where disciplines meet allowing completely new findings to be made,” says Günter M. Ziegler, President of Freie Universität Berlin. “We’re pleased that this research building designed in the seventies can once again host groundbreaking biomedical research.”
When they start work in the new premises from 2028, the researchers from Charité and Freie Universität Berlin want to address the state of health by dealing with four main research areas. The first task will be analyzing the mechanisms that enable the organism to adapt to environmental changes. This is a key factor in clinical treatment as the disorders in question are essentially maladaptations to an environment that has seen vast changes over the past 150 years. Another research area deals with the changes in these signal networks among sufferers of chronic inflammatory diseases. Building on the findings from pre-clinical and clinical research, trials will be conducted with the first innovative preventative and therapeutic treatments that should boost health-preserving mechanisms. Ultimately, while research results find their way from the laboratory to patients, data on usage, responses to treatment, and therapy failures will in turn shed light on health mechanisms.
The BC-BH is a major project of the Berlin University Alliance (BUA), a cooperation between Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin, and Charité – Universitätsmedizin, who are seeking to develop science in Berlin together. The new research center’s close ties with the clinical facilities at Campus Benjamin Franklin and bioscience institutions in the south of Berlin will allow a strong translational orientation. This means research findings can be swiftly put to use in medical care and observations can be sent back from there to the laboratory.
“The planned building infrastructure and equipment will provide the researchers with an excellent environment to identify important health-preserving mechanisms and make their findings usable for patients. The BC-BH will enhance the interfaces and synergies between Charité and Freie Universität Berlin. Together, we want to continue expanding and developing the field of health preservation and prevention as well as immunology,” says Professor Joachim Spranger, Dean of Charité. The center will receive modern large-scale systems for its work on international scientific questions. For example, technology units for individual analysis and imaging are planned that will make a key contribution to interdisciplinary work.
*German Science and Humanities Council (2023): Empfehlungen zur Förderung von Forschungsbauten (Förderphase 2024) (Recommendations for Funding of Research Buildings [Funding Phase 2024]); Cologne. https://doi.org/10.57674/xezv-1813
Berlin Center for the Biology of Health (BC-BH)
A total usable area of 3,169 square meters is planned for the research building. The total cost of the BC-BH including initial furnishings and large-scale equipment amounts to 54.4 million euros. The financing of the research building will be shared fifty-fifty by the State of Berlin and the German federal government. The operating costs will be covered jointly by Frei Universität Berlin and Charité proportionally to the actual usage share – about 70 percent for Charité and about 30 percent for Freie Universität Berlin. Charité’s own Business Division Construction will coordinate and carry out the building planning and refurbishment as the developer. The project will be planned and implemented in the years 2024 to 2028.
Institute of Microbiology, Infectious Diseases, and Immunology
Development of the Charité Campus Benjamin Franklin
Institute for Hygiene and Microbiology Building Gains Landmark Status, 2021
Fehling + Gogel: Institute for Hygiene and Microbiology
German Science and Humanities Council
Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin
Tel: +49 30 450 570 400
Contact for Academic Inquiries
Professor Andreas Diefenbach
Spokesperson for the Berlin Center for the Biology of Health
Director of the Institute of Microbiology, Infectious Diseases, and Immunology
Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin
Tel.: +49 30 450 524 171
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