Research Highlights

UDE/UK Essen in medical ranking: the best in NRW

The Medical Faculty of the University of Duisburg-Essen (UDE) and Essen University Hospital (UK Essen) are among the top 100 places in the world to study medicine. That is the finding of a current ranking (“Best Global Universities for Clinical Medicine in Germany”) for 2019 by the U.S. News and World Reports. “This is great international recognition,” confirms Dean Prof. Jan Buer, “which we owe above all to our researchers and scientists. They are responsible for the strong connection between research and clinical care and the excellent publication output of the Faculty and University Hospital that is associated with it.” Number 98 of the ranking is the best in the state of NRW, with only Heidelberg, Munich and Berlin slightly in front across Germany. Harvard University in the USA is in first place worldwide.

DFG funds UMEA – the new programme for clinician scientists

Medical doctors who conduct clinical research in the Medical Faculty at the UDE will be supported in future by the German Research Foundation (DFG) programme “Excellence in Medicine: Clinician Scientist Academy of University Medicine in Essen” (UMEA). The DFG is providing some 2.6 million € in funding for the programme, which is headed by Prof. Dagmar Führer-Sakel, director of the Clinic for Endocrinology, Diabetology and Metabolism. Vice-dean Prof. Sigrid Elsenbruch is the deputy head of UMEA. UMEA will allow clinicians to devote one half of their working hours to research in order to advance scientific projects. It also offers a mentor-supported qualification programme of specialist and interdisciplinary subjects. A special feature of the programme is the multidisciplinary approach at the interfaces between the Faculty’s main areas of interest and specialisation.

New research focus in medicine: Translational Neuro- and Behavioral Sciences

Neurological disorders and mental illness are becoming more prevalent worldwide. The Medical Faculty is therefore grouping its research activities in this field in a new specialisation, “Translational Neuro- and Behavioral Sciences”. It is coordinated by Prof. Christoph Kleinschnitz, director of the Clinic for Neurology, and Prof. Manfred Schedlowski, director of the Institute for Medical Psychology and Behavioral Immunobiology. The 17 clinics and preclinical institutes at UK Essen and the LVR Clinic in Essen will be working together even more closely in future. The fact that mental processes, behaviour, and organic diseases are connected mean that this new collaboration is likewise relevant to the Medical Faculty’s other research priorities. This applies to the links between immunology and infectiology in multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, depression or stroke, for example, or interaction between the heart and the brain in vascular medicine.

Extended: DFG Collaborative Research Centre 1116 (participating)

Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) 1116 “Master switches in cardiac ischemia” explores new therapeutic approaches to heart attacks. It has been extended by the DFG until 2022. The cooperating partners are the UDE, the University of Düsseldorf, and the Leibniz Institutes in Düsseldorf and Dortmund. The study deals with so-called effector mechanisms, which are important during and shortly after a heart attack in determining clinical outcome. Two CRC projects at the Institute for Pathophysiology are receiving total funding of 1.8 million € and are headed by Prof. Gerd Heusch, Prof. Petra Kleinbongard and Prof. Bodo Levkau.

Extended: DFG Collaborative Research Centre 876 (participating)

Artificial intelligence and huge volumes of data go hand in hand, but to bring them together is a major challenge for data processing. CRC 876 (“Providing Information by Resource-Constrained Data Analysis”), which entered its third funding period in 2018, is seeking solutions. The research partners are TU Dortmund University, the UDE, the Leibniz Institute for Analytical Sciences, and the Paul Ehrlich Institute. The DFG is providing some 9 million € in funding for the CRC. Its objective is to generate information from increasingly large volumes of data. In one sub-project, Prof. Alexander Schramm, head of Molecular Oncology at UK Essen’s West German Cancer Center, and the genome informatics expert Prof. Sven Rahmann are working on verification methods for therapeutic effectiveness in lung cancer.

Extended: DFG Research Unit 2123 (participating)

In 2017, the DFG extended Research Unit FOR 2123 “Sphingolipid Dynamics in Infection Control”, in which research groups from Würz­burg, Potsdam and two groups from Essen are collaborating on the role of sphingolipids in viral and bacterial infections. The range of projects extends from analysis of molecular infection mechanisms to preventive preclinical applications. The FOR 2123 spokesperson is Prof. Sibylle Schneider-Schaulies, University of Würzburg, and its deputy spokesperson is Prof. Erich Gulbins, UDE.

Extended: DFG Research Training Group 1949

Major success: Research Training Group (GRK) “Immune Response in Infectious Diseases – Regulation between Innate and Adaptive Immunity” in the UDE’s Medical Faculty has been extended. As from 2018, the DFG is providing over 4.5 million € in funding for a further four and a half years. The GRK was set up in 2014 for junior researchers from the natural sciences and medicine who are researching the immune system and infectious diseases. Its spokesperson is Prof. Astrid Westendorf.

New: DFG Collaborative Research Centre 1280 (participating)

Extinction learning does not mean that information is simply deleted from the brain. But what happens instead? The DFG is setting up a new CRC at Ruhr University Bochum on extinction learning. It builds on the work of a successful DFG Research Unit in which groups from the UDE’s Medical Faculty have already played a leading role. The spokesperson of the new Research Unit is Prof. Onur Güntürkün from the RUB’s Faculty of Psychology, and the co-spokesperson is Prof. Dagmar Timmann-Braun from the Clinic for Neurology. A total of five CRC projects are being conducted at UK Essen; the leaders of these projects are Prof. Sigrid Elsenbruch, Prof. Harald Engler, Dr. Martin Hadamitzky, Prof. Manfred Schedlowski, Prof. Ulrike Bingel, Dr. Katarina Forkmann, Prof. Dagmar Timmann-Braun and Prof. Harald Quick. The Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors at TU Dortmund University and Philipps-Universität Marburg are also participating in the CRC.

New: DFG Collaborative Research Centre 240 (participating)

The new CRC 240 “Platelets – Molecular, cellular and systemic functions in health and disease”, in which the Medical Faculty is also taking part, deals with the many different functions of blood platelets. The DFG is providing around 15 million € in funding for the CRC in the coming four years. Around 600,000 € will be invested in research at the Clinic of Neurology under Prof. Christoph Kleinschnitz on the role of platelets after a stroke.

Extended: DFG Collaborative Research Centre 900 (participating)

“Cure of chronic hepatitis C: Long-term effects on HCV-specific and heterologous immune responses” is the name of the sub-project headed by Prof. Heiner Wedemeyer as part of CRC 900 at the Medizinische Hochschule Hannover (“Chronic Infections: Microbial Persistence and its Control”), which the DFG is now funding for a further four years. In Essen, the researchers are exploring the effects of co-regulatory molecules for antigen-specific T-cells during chronic HCV infection and after a cure with direct-acting antiviral drugs.

DFG funds interdisciplinary research on “LAP”

The DFG is funding an interdisciplinary research project by researchers from the UDE’s Medical Faculty and the University of Düsseldorf on the fundamental principles of the specific radiobiological effects of laser-induced protons (LAP). The applicants from Essen are Prof. Beate Timmermann, director of the Clinic for Particle Therapy at the West German Proton Therapy Center in Essen, and Prof. George Iliakis, director of the Institute of Medical Radiation Biology.

DFG funds research on chronic infections

What changes during chronic infections, and how do immune cells work together to fight them? Researchers from the Medical Faculty will be investigating these questions over the coming three years in a project that is receiving more than 500,000 € in funding from the DFG. The research groups of Prof. Ulf Dittmer, director of the Institute of Virology, and Prof. Matthias Gunzer, director of the Institute of Experimental Immunology and Imaging, are working in close collaboration on the project. They are interested in chronic infection with the Friend retrovirus. Both teams have already conducted successful joint studies of regulatory T cells known as Tregs.

Exosomes as cancer markers

How fast is a tumour growing and has it already spread to other parts of the body? Researchers from the UDE’s Medical Faculty are working in the Clinic for Pediatrics III at UK Essen to explore how so-called exosomes can be deployed in cancer diagnosis and therapy. The researchers in Essen are interested in exosomes that are derived from the respective cancer cells and carry disease-specific proteins, lipids and genomic signatures of the original cell.

Improved chances of recovery for children with acute megakaryoblastic leukemia

Acute megakaryoblastic leukemia (AMKL) generally affects young children. The prognosis for successful therapy is only around 50 percent. Researchers have now made a crucial breakthrough with the aid of the Medical Faculty, as the renowned journal Nature Genetics reports. Using genetic analysis of the bone marrow of affected children, the researchers succeeded for the first time in identifying different AMKL sub-groups and their relevance to patient prognosis.

New insights into links between infection and depression

Immune messenger substances, so-called cytokines, have long been thought to play a role in the development of depressive disorders. Two researchers from the Medical Faculty, Prof. Harald Engler and Prof. Manfred Schedlowski from the Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioral Immunobiology, have now found important experimental evidence to support the assumption. In an interdisciplinary study, they have been able to show for the first time in humans that the concentration of the immune messenger substance Interleukin-6 rises in the course of acute infection, not only in the blood but also in the cerebrospinal fluid.

Successful tests – new drug for head and neck cancer

Patients with advanced stages of cancer are receiving increasingly successful treatment with targeted drugs. An international team of researchers including members of the West German Cancer Center at UK Essen and the Medical Faculty have for the first time demonstrated the effectiveness of a new drug (Buparlisib) in combination with chemotherapy in patients with recurrent head and neck cancer. The journal Lancet Oncology reported on the research.

Special effect of an MS drug discovered

Damaged nerves cause tingling sensations, numbness and paralysis. Up to now there have been no registered medications that can heal this kind of damage. But a drug that is used to treat multiple sclerosis, dimethyl fumarate (DMF), is presenting some new possibilities. Researchers from the Medical Faculty and Düsseldorf University Hospital have discovered that it can “repair” nerves. Fabian Szepanowski from the Clinical and Experimental Neuroimmunology group (PI Dr. Dr. Mark Stettner) showed in the journal Acta Neuropathologica that mice with injury of the peripheral nervous system were able to regain movement faster if they were given DMF.

Argentine hemorrhagic fever vaccine also fights cancer

A cancer-fighting vaccine is a vision that researchers from the Medical Faculty and the German Cancer Consortium (DKTK) are now a step closer to achieving. They report in Nature Communications that immune cells stimulated by a vaccine (Candid#1) are capable of killing cancer cells. When the vaccine is administered, it replicates in the tumour cells and draws the immune cells to the tumour, where they inhibit its growth, sometimes leading to complete tumour regression. The effectiveness of the drug is to be tested in a clinical trial.

Evidence of anorexia nervosa gene revealed – anorexia can be hereditary

An international research group headed in Germany by the Medical Faculty has for the first time uncovered evidence that genetic predisposition to the eating disorder anorexia nervosa can exist. The American Journal of Psychiatry reported on their work. The study was conducted by the Psychiatric Genetics Consortium Eating Disorders Working Group. The institutions taking part in the study included the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Karolinska Institutet, King’s College London, Stanford University, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University; Massachusetts General Hospital, Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin; the UK Essen’s Clinic for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

Study on preventive drug – great interest in HIV prophylaxis

PrEP is a prophylactic drug for people who are at a high risk of contracting HIV. The “PreP in Germany” (PRIDE) study of the Institute of HIV Research in the Medical Faculty has supplied the first comprehensive data on its use: the number of users has risen dramatically since October 2017, with some 4,500 people already protecting themselves. The lead investigator on the study is Prof. Hendrik Streeck, director of the Institute of HIV Research.

Hepatitis C influences killer cells

Hepatitis C has long-term effects on the human immune system, researchers from the Medical Faculty have discovered. Working with colleagues from Hannover and Stockholm, they were able to show that infection with the virus alters the diversity of natural killer cells – presumably for life and even when the virus is cured. The researchers from the UDE, Karolinska Institutet and MHH compared patient data over a two-year period for their research. They found that even after hepatitis C is cured, the changes to the natural killer cells persist. The results of their study were published in the journal Nature Communications.

Fewer liver transplants thanks to modern hepatitis C drugs

For decades, cirrhosis of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus was one of the main indications for liver transplantation. Can antiviral drugs also help to stop disease and lead to fewer transplants? Prof. Heiner Wedemeyer, director of the Clinic for Gastroenterology and Hepatology, and Prof. Kerstin Herzer, senior physician in the Liver Transplantation Unit, have been exploring this question. They have evaluated information from eleven transplantation centres in Germany and published their findings in the renowned Journal of Hepatology.