When cells make the wrong decision, diseases ensue. This insight came from Berlin – namely from Rudolf Virchow. On October 13, 2021, at an event celebrating the 200th birthday of the famous pathologist, physician and socialist politician Rudolf Virchow, the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) and the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, together with several Berlin research institutions, declared the founding of the Berlin Cell Hospital, an Institution to shape and develop the cell-based medicine of the future.
The Berlin Cell Hospital will begin life as a registered association to allow established institutions to become members. It’s key participants are the MDC, the Helmholtz Association, Charité, the Berlin Institute of Health at Charité (BIH) and the Berlin Institute for the Foundations of Learning and Data (BIFOLD). The Cell Hospital also hopes to cooperate with private partners and other institutions in Berlin and Germany, including the Helmholtz Health Centers and the German Centers for Health Research (DZGs), as well as to create an international network.
The number of chronically ill people who require expensive and invasive treatments is growing continuously. At the same time, life expectancy is on the rise, which means the population is getting older and older. Instead of only treating common diseases when their patients start to display serious symptoms – by which time a great deal of damage has already been done – doctors are in urgent need of new diagnostic and therapeutic strategies.
Diseases often begin much earlier than the onset of symptoms. As far back as 1858, the famous pathologist Rudolf Virchow suggested that the origin of diseases can be traced back to changes in individual cells. So how and why do these changes occur?
Each cell is continuously “reading” the genome so it knows how to react to signals from neighboring cells or new environmental conditions. How exactly each individual cell interprets this “book of life,” but also what mistakes happen in the process and which changes disrupt the process, is something scientists have only been able to observe for the past few years thanks to single-cell biology. The volume of data generated for each cell corresponds in magnitude to that produced by classical genomics techniques. The amount of information it contains is unimaginable, and the depth of detail unparalleled. BIFOLD will contribute machine learning research and tools that make this flood of data manageable.
“It’s as if we discovered a super microscope,” says Nikolaus Rajewsky. “Thanks to these technologies, we can analyze every single cell in a tissue for the very first time and understand when and why it gets sick.” Cell-based medicine wants to use this knowledge to guide cells back to a state of health as quickly as possible – with the help of extremely early diagnostics that recognize when a cell takes its first step in the direction of disease, with the help of targeted procedures on molecular mechanisms and with cellular therapies, RNA-based approaches and similar techniques. The goal of cell-based medicine is to close the gap between classic prevention and medicine that treats only symptomatic patients. Thanks to its personalized treatment strategies, the concept is also suitable for preventing disease relapses and resistance to immunotherapy or chemotherapy.
But successfully implementing cell-based medicine is no easy feat. It requires a multifaceted approach that breaks down disciplinary and institutional boundaries and that, to date, has never existed under one roof in Germany. To understand diseases in a new way, a research concept that brings together experts from clinical practice, biomedical research, technology, data science, mathematics and engineering science is needed – all working together in close proximity to advance novel approaches to medicine. The core pillars are single-cell technologies, patient-specific model systems such as organoids, and new AI solutions. In the new Cell Hospital, these will mainly be applied to the major chronic diseases (cancer, cardiovascular diseases, infectious diseases and neurological diseases).
The Cell Hospital aims to develop molecular prevention strategies and new precision diagnostics, as well as to reliably identify new drug targets for molecular and cellular therapies. In order to transfer knowledge as quickly as possible, the Berlin Cell Hospital is planning a broad innovation and industry program – for example via the Virchow 2.0 Clusters4Future application – which should facilitate dynamic developments and remove any existing obstacles. The resulting innovation ecosystem will hopefully include industry partnerships, cross-sector networking, innovation spaces and labs, and should promote a thriving spin-off culture. An education and training program will target the workforce of the future, including students, researchers and health professionals. The Berlin Cell Hospital aims to unite these basic elements and the critical mass of science under one roof – in close proximity to the clinic and patients, and in a way that involves patients and citizens from the very beginning.