Charité leads on three new EU-funded projects

More than €10 million in funding awarded to Charité

Researchers from Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin have successfully convinced the EU Commission of the quality of their research proposals. As a result, the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program will provide funding for a total of nine collaborative research projects, three of which will be led by Charité. For its involvement in all nine of these projects, Charité will receive more than €10 million in funding.

The funded projects cover a wide range of topics, which include plans to develop a new treatment to prevent transplant rejection, human brain simulation, and the development of a technology platform for gene therapy. The next four years will see researchers from Charité work alongside numerous European partners to further develop their innovative approaches. “An achievement of this magnitude across different fields of medical research once again demonstrates the sheer strength of Charité’s research profile. This is an outstanding start to 2019 for Charité,” says the Dean of Charité, Prof. Dr. Axel Radlach Pries.

The EU-funded collaborative projects are:

In patients with autoimmune disorders, and in those undergoing organ transplantation or stem cell transfer, excessive inflammation can cause extensive damage to organs and tissues and may even lead to death. A new approach in the treatment of these patients uses regulatory T cells (Tregs) to restore the immune system to its natural balance. Once isolated from the patient’s blood, these cells can be expanded (increased in number) and their function stabilized. Reinjection into the patient can then restore the body’s normal inflammatory response and prevent further tissue damage. This can drastically improve the patient’s prognosis.

The ReSHAPE project will see researchers studying a range of different approaches aimed at improving the efficacy of these cell therapies. This will include the use of cutting-edge technologies such as the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique to develop new Treg-based products. The project’s ultimate aim is the development of a treatment alternative for patients with unwanted immune reactions who, at present, cannot be cured. The ReSHAPE project is being led by Prof. Dr. Petra Reinke, Founding Director of the Berlin Center for Advanced Therapies (BeCAT) and transplant specialist at the Berlin-Brandenburg Center for Regenerative Therapies (BCRT). The EU Commission will fund the ReSHAPE project from 1 January 2019 for a period of four years. The project will receive €13.1 million in funding, of which Charité has been allocated more than €4.1 million.

Many patients with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease vary greatly in terms of their symptoms and disease progression, meaning that diagnostics and treatment should be tailored to their individual needs. The EU-funded ‘VirtualBrainCloud’ project aims to establish a cloud-based neuroinformatics platform capable of producing personalized brain simulations. This project will involve the collaboration of a number of international research groups and will be led by Prof. Dr. Petra Ritter of Charité’s Department of Neurology with Experimental Neurology. VirtualBrainCloud is an expansion of ‘The Virtual Brain’, a computer program which uses the brain’s structural architecture and neural connections to produce a simulated version. “We will now integrate data on molecular processes into our existing platform,” explains Prof. Ritter, who holds the BIH Johanna Quandt Professorship for Brain Simulation. It is hoped the platform will enable the personalized diagnosis and treatment of patients with neurodegenerative diseases. VirtualBrainCloud is a collaborative project involving 17 partner institutions. The project, which commenced on 1 December 2018, will receive more than €15 million in funding over four years, of which Charité will receive nearly €2 million.

Many diseases that are caused by a genetic defect – such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease and hemophilia – remain incurable. Gene therapy may provide relief but must overcome two problems. Firstly, it must be possible to deliver therapeutic genes to specific target cells in the body. Secondly, the therapeutic genes must enter the interior of these cells, but must not be destroyed. Initial gene therapy approaches use viruses to ferry therapeutic genes into cells. However, these techniques carry substantial risks and cannot be used for the delivery of other biomolecules. The ENDOSCAPE project aims to develop a new, non-viral gene delivery technology that will be capable of efficiently delivering both therapeutic genes and other therapeutic biomolecules. Led by Prof. Dr. Hendrik Fuchs of Charité's Institute of Laboratory Medicine, Clinical Chemistry and Pathobiochemistry, the research team intends to use natural, plant-based substances known as glycosides to develop a gene technology platform that can be used to treat more than one specific disorder. Potential clinical applications may include the repair or replacement of defective genes and the targeted delivery of specific genes to destroy cancer cells. The ENDOSCAPE project will receive a total of €6.8 million over four years, starting on 1 January 2019. Approximately €1.4 million of this funding will go to Charité.