Bonn to battle Neurodegeneration

A new research center to combat dementia joins a network of neuroscience institutes along the Rhine axis.

By Annette Tuffs

The view from Venusberg hill, the site of the new German Helmholtz Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases at University Hospital.

It is the disease of forgetting—and was for a long time a forgotten disease. Dementia, the seemingly inevitable loss of memory and personality associated with growing older, has been globally neglected by science and politics. However, in Germany a new initiative was started in 2007 when Science Minister Annette Schavan announced: "We are taking on today's great socio-political challenge of the increasing life expectancy and the demographic development of the population."

The growing challenge of dementia was taken on when the German federal government announced that a new national center on dementia research was to be established and scientists were asked to send in their proposals. In...

Bench and bedside on one hill

Due to the increase in life expectancy, it is estimated that more than four million Germans will be afflicted with dementia by the year 2050.And while this growing tragedy remains largely hidden in nursing homes and private residences, dementia research is finally received the scientific recognition in that it needs, thanks to the persistence of dedicated scientists and the determination of thoughtful politicians. The public's awareness has also increased due to prominent persons like former US President Ronald Reagan openly admitting to advancing Alzheimer's, and by media reports of relatives sacrificing their livelihoods to care for relatives with dementia.

The original plan to name the new research institution the German Dementia Center was abandoned, as it was thought that this would narrow the scope and diversity of research. Neurodegenerative diseases encompass a broad spectrum, all of which involve the loss of nerve cells, and many of which result in dementia. Common diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's belong to this category as well as brain damage due to alcoholism or infections, and rare genetic disorders.

"We will now house internationally renowned research on diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's under one roof", explains Schavan. The newly established Helmholtz Center Bonn will have an annual budget of about €60 million, 90 percent financed by the federal government and 10 percent by the state of North- Rhine-Westphalia. It will join the ranks of the prestigious Helmholtz Society, with its 15 large research institutes in Germany. These institutes seek scientific solutions to society's most pressing problems such as climate change, environmental pollution, energy production, and the treatment of common diseases like cancer.

About 400 scientists will work at the new center which will be built on the campus of the University Hospital on the Venusberg hill, overlooking the town. Its challenge is to apply basic biomedical research to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of degenerative brain disease by finding mechanisms and strategies which can counteract the progressive loss of nerve cells which can lead to dementia. The center will work closely with the hospitals on the Bonn Campus to provide care for patients with neurodegenerative disease. Clinicians and scientists will not only develop new treatments, but also bring bedside observations back to the laboratory. In doing so, they hope to develop better and more efficient forms of treatment, support and care of patients with dementia.

"This is a different approach than that of other Helmholtz Centers because from the start the focus is on patients and the entire population", says Thomas Klockgether, Medical Director of Bonn's Neurological University Hospital. New concepts for the care for patients, and for helping them to maintain their independence are just as important as treating and preventing brain deterioration.

The Center should be "at the spearhead of dementia research in Germany," says Vice-Rector for Research at the University of Bonn, Professor Max Bauer. The Center will also coordinate all dementia research in Germany, via designated satellite institutions—in Munich, Göttingen, Tübingen, Magdeburg, Witten, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Dresden.

Focus on natural aging

Neuro-Alliance powered by Berlin

The BioPharma Competition was designed to give new impetus to Germany's pharmaceutical industry at a structural level. Consortia consisting of small and large companies and partners from science and clinical practice were eligible to submit a joint strategy for effective drug development. Thirty seven applications were evaluated by an international panel of experts, and the Neuro-Alliance was one of three winners.

The Neuro-Alliance consortium brings together 12 North Rhine-Westphalian partners from business, scientific research and clinical practice. The group will receive €20 million over the next three years to implement a new strategic model for partnerships between publicly-supported research installations, the pharmaceutical industry, biotechnology firms and government offices. "We are looking at the potential of small molecules as well as of biologicals like microRNAs for diagnosing and preventing neurodegenerative disease," explains Christa Müller who is joint leader of the Bonn University's pharma center. Innovative diagnostics are especially important since diseases like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's are usually detected at a relatively late stage when the majority of brain cells have already been lost and neuroprotective therapy does not work.

A flagship project is the search for a new class of drugs to treat Parkinson's disease. There are two targets: the problems of tremor and rigor (when the patient trembles and cannot move) and the preservation of normal brain tissue from further dysfunction. "We have already identified several molecules," says Müller, "which will be tested in the animal models."

The selection of Bonn reflects the fast-paced development happening along the Rhine River. The founding committee for the new Helmholtz Center was impressed by the concentration and high standard of neuroscience in the area, connecting universities and research institutes in Bonn, Cologne and Düsseldorf.

For example, in 2007, the Collaborative Research Center "Environmentally-Induced Aging Processes" at Düsseldorf University was established with funding from the German Research Society (DFG). This center focuses on mechanisms of aging at the molecular level, and models their importance for the aging process of whole organs with the ultimate aim of developing pharmacological prevention and treatment concepts.

Cologne is the site of a new Max Planck Institute which will focus on the biology of aging as part of the life science clusters of Cologne University. The institute was founded in 2007; three directors have already been appointed, in biochemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology. This institute is unique in focusing primarily on understanding the natural aging process and not on diseases common in old age. There are fundamental processes of aging which apply to all creatures. The preferred species of study are those that have been genetically mapped and for which interactions between environment and genome are best understood. Among the leading model organisms are D. melanogaster, C. elegans, the mouse, and S. cerevisiae.

Single genes influence life span: in case of the worm 100 different genes have been found to shorten life. For the fruit fly it was shown by Linda Partridge, Director of the new Cologne Max Planck Institute, that sexual activity shortens life and that reduced intake of lipids and protein can prolong life. The institute's research will focus on the role that hormones, such as insulin, have on life cycles, and on mitochondria, the power stations of the cells, which slow down with aging.

A new Max Planck Institute in Cologne will study fundamental processes of aging which apply to all creatures.

This new Max Planck Institute will work closely with the Cologne Excellence Cluster on Cellular Stress Responses in Age-associated Diseases (CECAD), established in February 2008 at Cologne University. The cluster takes an integrated approach to aging, concentrating on the pathophysiology of disease. The approach arises from recent discoveries that mutations in single genes can extend lifespan. These genes may be able to reduce the impact of a broad spectrum of age-related damage and pathology, and their manipulation could revolutionize approaches for prevention and treatment of age-associated diseases. The mission of CECAD is to unravel the molecular mechanisms underlying the regulation of lifespan and of age-associated diseases, providing the groundwork for novel therapeutic interventions.

Bonn University has been a recognized center for neuroscience and, with the Center of Advanced European Studies and Research (CAESAR) has a strong partner specializing in technology transfer. This development was recognized and further boosted in September 2008, when the so-called Bonn "Neuro-Alliance" succeeded in the Federal Research Ministry's competition for BioPharma research. With neurodegeneration involving ever more patients and their families, the success of this concentrated effort along the Rhine axis has the future of many millions of patients in its hands.

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