Where Science and Sport interact

Julius Wolff Institute: One of the largest laboratories on movement in the world

Looking at the stunning façade of the brick building at Philippstraße 13 in Berlin-Mitte, you’d never know that it houses one of the largest and most state-of-the-art laboratories on movement analysis in the world. Whereas many years ago that same building housed stables and an operating room for horses, today the focus there is on human beings. For example, in Haus 11 on Campus Nord of the Humboldt Universität (HU), one finds the Julius Wolff Institute for Biomechanics and Musculoskeletal Regeneration. Prof. Dr. Georg Duda founded this institute associated with the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin ten years ago. Since then, he has worked in cooperation with the HU’s Sports Sciences Department under one roof to develop a leading site of research into the interplay between medicine and sports.

At the two locations that make up the Julius Wolff Institute, more than 80 scientists perform basic applied research in the fields of orthopedics and trauma surgery. They explore the stresses and strains placed on the human musculoskeletal system while also examining new regeneration procedures, athletes’ performance capacities and the effectiveness of training and rehabilitation. They not only focus on the bodies of professional and amateur athletes, but also on the regeneration and rehabilitation of average patients. The kinesiological focus at Campus Charité Mitte complements the  regenerative focus at the Campus Virchow-Klinikum.

Prof. Georg Duda
Prof. Georg Duda (c) Julius Wolff Institute

Professor Duda: Working in the Traditon of Julius Wolff

Professor Duda completed his studies in precision engineering and biomedical engineering at Technische Universität Berlin (TU) and went on to focus on the interplay between mechanics and biology in the field of orthopedics. In 2008, he became director of the Julius Wolff Institute and professor of biomechanics and musculoskeletal regeneration. As Professor Duda explains,

“Here at the institute, we work in the tradition of Julius Wolff, that is, we perform research into how movement leads to stress and changes in bones, muscles and joints, but also how movement promotes the healing process.”

In 1892, the German orthopedist Julius Wolff postulated what came to be known as “Wolff’s Law” regarding the transformation of bones. This law states that bones will adapt to the load under which they are placed; for example, if loading on a bone increases, it will remodel itself over time to become stronger in order to resist that form of loading. The inverse of this law is also true. In other words, bones build up and are strengthened when loaded, but will degrade when only slightly loaded or not at all.

The work done by Professor Duda and his team at the institute unites several different approaches, including methods of prevention, new insights into degeneration and athletes’ aspirations to achieve ever new records. As Duda notes, the team focuses on sports performance as well as the effectiveness of training, regeneration and rehabilitation: “At our institute, we are able to analyze, evaluate and optimize procedures that were developed under laboratory conditions – including procedures designed for the rehabilitation of top athletes, performance diagnostics and the analysis of athletes’ motor skills – only under real-life conditions.”

(c) Julius Wolff Institute
(c) Julius Wolff Institute

Cooperation with Athletes

In order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of physical measures’ influence on movement and the loading of joints, the team at the Julius Wolff Institute is using systems designed to measure movement and external forces through medical imaging in combined form. This versatile approach is then used to establish preventive measures. As Professor Duda explains, “This is the way we work, for example, in the field of injury prevention and competitive sports, but also with regard to the early diagnosis of degenerative diseases like osteoarthritis.” For example, the team at the institute is currently supervising the German national volleyball team, looking especially at how high levels of stress during training affects the structure of cartilage. Indeed, volleyball players are at an especially high risk for joint injuries. The goal of the analysis is to identify players with more unstable joints early in order to reduce the risk of injury.

The team closely and continuously monitors the cartilage of athletes who are deemed to be susceptible. At the same time, they provide the athletes with training recommendations designed to maximize joint stability and thus minimize the risk of osteoarthritis and injury. The junior soccer players on Berlin’s 1. FC Union team are also being treated by the experts at the Julius Wolff Institute. Among other things, the researchers measure joint stability in players’ knees; in turn, these measurements allow them to make recommendations for holistic training concepts. “We monitor our subjects to see to what extent we can improve joint stability by means of special exercises so that we can reduce the risk of injury and arthrosis,” explains the institute director.

Using this early detection of joint instability in top athletes, scientists are able to come up with custom-made training programs and then evaluate the impact of different rehabilitation and prevention methods on the functionality of the joints. As professor Duda explains,

“We are increasingly becoming aware of the importance of the entire muscular system. All muscle areas are relevant, from the ankle joint and the knee joint to the hip joint and ultimately to the spine. Our major goal is to understand this interplay along the entire chain of joints.” 

RUNSCAN: Biomechanical Running Analysis

In the past two years, researchers at the Julius Wolff Institute developed RunScan, a biomechanical walking and running analysis system that allows them to determine the individual running styles and patterns of athletes and orthopedic patients. “For example, we can use RunScan to analyze
the running pattern of someone who is eager to run a marathon, but who would like to avoid provoking any chronic overloading of their joints due to stress or their particular running style,” says Professor Duda. RunScan can also determine how quickly athletes will be able to return to their
sport after suffering an injury.

The first step involves recording the athlete’s comprehensive medical history. After that, he or she runs on the instrumented treadmill, where all major stress parameters are measured to determine the load on the feet and the distribution of body weight. Every step is monitored and all
force parameters are recorded, with the athlete’s movements captured by two high-speed cameras and a motion analysis system. As soon as the results have been evaluated, the most important task is to provide the athlete with a custom-made training recommendation.

The buildings at RunScan
The buildings at RunScan (c) Julius Wolff Institute

RunScan, a biomechanical run analysis system, also targets recreational athletes. The technology used to analyze gait and running characteristics considers the biomechanical aspects of your entire body. A full examination lasts up to one hour and costs between €150 and €170. Further information at: http://runscan.de/en


The Interplay of Medicine and Sport

The Julius Wolff Institute cooperates with a number of partners, including the Olympiastützpunkt Berlin, 1. FC Union Berlin, SV Babelsberg and various ALBA baskeball players. For a while now, the team has also been working together with dancers at the Staatsballett Berlin, where the injury rate can quickly reach 80% per season. The team’s goal here is to identify dancers who might have instabilities in their knees and hips or any problems with their ankles and backs; after that, their job is to offer them support and advice. The research institute is closely connected with the Center for Musculoskeletal Surgery at Charité Hospital and the HU’s Department of Training and Movement Sciences. The Julius Wolff Institute is looking forward to creating an even closer exchange among athletes, scientists and physicians.

“Sports are a key theme in Berlin, and so, too, is science. I’m hoping these two fields work more closely together in the future, as we would benefit tremendously from more interfaces between the two worlds.” 

argues Professor Duda.

More information: 

Berlin as a Science Location: www.braincity.berlin

About the Rudolf Wolff Institute

Sports Metropolis Berlin: www.berlin-sportmetropole.de

Header Image: (c) Julius Wolff Institute
Text: Anna Knüpfing | The article was published in "Berlin to go" #02/2018