Special Topic | Virchow in the 21st century – the Berlin Cell Hospital

Cell-based medicine has the potential to detect and counteract diseases long before symptoms become apparent. This comparatively young medical approach uses a large number of new technologies to achieve this. The Berlin Cell Hospital, which is newly founded in the capital, is to lay a foundation stone for the further development and implementation of cell-based medicine in the health sector.


The famous Berlin pathologist and doctor Rudolf Virchow established in his research on cellular pathology that cells always emerge from other cells. For Virchow, the cell was therefore “the last actual form element of all living phenomena”. With this cell theory, he changed medicine and medical practice. Virchow wanted to understand what goes on in cells in order to be able to diagnose and cure diseases better. 

Founding on the 200th birthday of Rudolf Virchow 
On the day of his 200th  birthday, 13 October 2021, a community consisting of the Max Delbrück Centre (MDC), the Charité Berlin, the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) and the Berlin Institute for the Foundations of Learning and Data (BIFOLD) came together to follow in the footsteps of Virchow and to transform medicine once again. In the Berlin Cell Hospital (BCH) they want to advance research and practice in the field of cell-based medicine. 

Detecting diseases earlier 
The basic approach of cell-based medicine is to detect diseases long before the first symptoms appear. This is because when these become visible, diseases are often already advanced and complex treatment is necessary, which is not always successful. 

Scientists have only recently been able to analyse the genetic activity of individual body cells, for example in single cell biology and in stem cell-based organoid research. Among other things, it is possible to observe how individual cells communicate with others and react to new environmental conditions. The amount of data that is generated for each individual cell corresponds in size to classic genomics approaches and is evaluated with the help of Artificial Intelligence (AI). In this way, every single cell in a tissue can be analysed and it can be understood how, when and why it becomes ill. As a result, new “targets” for drugs/interventions are found. This would close the gap between prevention and the treatment of patients with symptoms. The end result should be highly individualised therapy or even prevention of cancer, for example. Similar goals are being pursued in Berlin by research at the National Centre for Tumour Diseases (NCT) of the Charité, BIH and MDC. Doctors there also work together with researchers to offer every patient cancer therapy tailored to their own disease. 

Implementation of cell-based medicine - the BCH is constituted 
“The main goal of the BCH is to implement cell-based medicine. No classic clinic or research facility should be created for this, but rather we want to establish a kind of ecosystem for research, translation and innovation to improve patient outcomes in order to cover all aspects of cell-based medicine,” says Dr. Stan Gorski, Executive Science Strategy Officer at BCH. The project was led by Professor Nikolaus Rajewsky, Scientific Director of the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology at the Max Delbrück Centre for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) and spokesman for the BCH, and Professor Angelika Eggert, Director of the Clinic for Paediatrics with a focus on Oncology and Haematology at the Charité – Universitätsmedizin (co-spokesperson). The idea for cell-based medicine originally came from Professor Nikolaus Rajewsky. He coordinated the development of the concept together with more than 200 scientists from almost 200 research institutions in 21 countries within the European LifeTime Initiative.  

“The BCH is currently in the process of being constituted. We bring together the different players from the founding organisations who can do important things for the work of the BCH,” says Gorski. In the long term there should also be a location where research takes place, companies work on developing marketable products and patients and citizens are informed about the new approach. Doctors should also be trained in this. For their work, the initiators of the BCH hope for funding and investment from the public and private sectors. As a first component of the BCH, the partners are currently developing the innovation cluster “Virchow 2.0 - Innovation Cluster for Cell-Based Medicine in Berlin-Brandenburg”. The network has set itself the goal of building a biomedical AI innovation ecosystem for the implementation of cell-based medicine in Berlin. To this end, 37 project teams from academia and industry proposed their ideas for cooperative R&D projects. Selected projects in the fields of single cell technologies, AI and patient-derived disease models will be included in the final cluster strategy of Virchow 2.0. In this way, Virchow 2.0 should help to bring results from cutting-edge research to the citizens faster and more directly. 

To find out more about the concept of cell-based medicine, interested potential applicants are encouraged to read the LifeTime Nature perspective article as well as the Strategic Research Agenda of this European initiative.  

The first of its kind 
It is no coincidence that the BCH is located in Berlin. “All the important factors for our work come together in Berlin. The Charité, one of the best university hospitals in Europe, is at home here. The infrastructures for research and translation beyond the MDC, BIFOLD and BIH are also great,” says Gorski.  

So far there is nothing comparable to the BCH for cell-based medicine anywhere in the world. So in the long term, the BCH could turn the capital region into an internationally leading innovation location that can compete with the innovation centre surrounding the Harvard Medical School on the US East Coast and the companies based there. 

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