The World’s First Center for Cell-based Medicine
The Berlin Cell Hospital will implement cell-based interceptive medicine.
Do you know one of the basic truths of biological life? It was formulated in Berlin in 1858 and it says: All cells come from cells.
Your body is an assortment of cells, approximately 100 trillion of them. But at the very beginning of life, you are just the one single cell. All the others with an abundance of different forms and functions are formed out of this first one. Almost every type of cell is replaced again and again by newly emerging ones.
And much can go wrong in the process. That’s why we need medicine.
It was Rudolf Virchow who said all cells come from cells. Or, for the Latin speakers among you, “Omnis cellula e cellula”. The great physician and biologist, known as “the father of modern pathology” and to some even as the “Pope of medicine”, had made breakthrough discoveries while working in Berlin’s prestigious Charité hospital. Virchow’s 200th birthday, October 13, 2021, was chosen as the auspicious date on which to open the Berlin Cell Hospital (BCH), the world’s first institution to specialize in cell-based interceptive medicine.
Virchow recognized the need to understand cellular processes in order to cure human diseases. And now the technology is available to do so more fully, says Nikolaus Rajewsky, the visionary behind the idea of the cell hospital and director of the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology (BIMSB) of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC).
The First of its Kind in the World
The unique BCH institution is to lay the foundation for the further development and implementation of cell-based medicine in healthcare. Using a variety of new technologies, cell-based medicine aims to track, understand and target human cells during the onset and progression of complex diseases. The great benefit of these relatively young medical approaches is that cell-based medicine has the potential to detect and counteract diseases long before symptoms become apparent. Symptoms tend to occur when diseases are already at a fairly advanced stage, making the necessary treatment more complex and lowering the chances of its success.
The list of treatments which the cell strategy could support is long: cancer, congenital heart disease, heart failure and other cardiovascular diseases, neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, brain tumors, epilepsy, schizophrenia and autism, infectious diseases such as respiratory infections could all be potentially much better understood at the single-cell level and this knowledge used for more direct and effective treatments using cell-based medicine.
While the study of cells is hundreds of years old, the genetic activity of individual cells in the body have been a mystery to scientists until relatively recently. Thanks to advances in single-cell biology it is now possible to observe how individual cells communicate with others and react to changes in environmental conditions. With the aid of artificial intelligence (AI), the complex data of each individual cell can be analyzed. The volume of data generated for each cell is of such a magnitude and complexity that machine learning and AI is the only way to identify patterns in the data and extract meaningful information. So with AI, scientists can better understand how, when and why an individual cell in a specific part of the human body becomes sick and predict the diseases future course.
“It’s as if we discovered a super microscope,” says Professor Nikolaus Rajewsky. “Thanks to these technologies, we can analyze every single cell in a tissue for the very first time and understand when and why it gets sick.”
Identifying and intercepting sick cells will help find new ‘targets’ for medicine to develop new therapies that target the cause of the disease rather than treat symptoms. The idea is to close the gap between prevention of the onset of a disease and treatment of patients with symptoms. The end result could be a highly personalized patient therapy or even prevention of, for example, cancer. The concept is also suitable for preventing disease relapses and resistance to immunotherapy or chemotherapy. It will effectively reduce the cost of drug development and represents real progress in the treatment of widespread diseases.
Behind the Berlin Cell Hospital (BCH)
A community has now come together to form the BCH including the Max Delbrück Center, the Charité university hospital in Berlin, the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) at Charité, and the Berlin Institute for the Foundations of Learning and Data (BIFOLD), which specializes in machine learning and data analytics, supported by other researchers, for example at the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) also based at the Charité. This community is coordinated by the BCH speakers, Professor Rajewsky, and Professor Angelika Eggert, director of the Department of Pediatrics with a focus on oncology and hematology at the Charité. Within the BCH, physicians will work together with researchers to offer each patient a cancer therapy tailored to his or her own disease.
However, the BCH “is not intended to be a traditional clinic or research institute, but rather we want to establish a kind of ecosystem for research, translation [of scientific research into applicable practice] and innovation to improve patient outcomes covering all aspects of cell-based medicine,” says Dr. Stan Gorski Executive Science Strategy Officer at the BCH. Together, the plan is to create facilities for research, for companies to work on developing marketable products, and for patients and the public to be informed about the new approach. Students, researchers and medical professionals are also to be trained here.
Administratively, the Berlin Cell Hospital will be a registered association which allows established institutions to become members. In this way, the Cell Hospital can create a network and cooperate with private partners and other institutions – institutions like the Helmholtz Health Centers, German Centers for Health Research (DZGs) or Berlin’s Universities. The network is not limited to Berlin but spans across Germany and is open internationally.
With such a multi-institutional open structure, the BCH can address the urgent need for new diagnostic and therapeutic strategies by bringing together experts from clinical practice, biomedical research, technology, data science, mathematics and engineering science to all work together. The resulting ecosystem will include industry partnerships, cross-sector networks, innovation spaces and labs, and promote spin-off startups. Also being initiated through Virchow 2.0 is a new innovation cluster in the Clusters4Future program located in Berlin-Brandenburg. The BCH is interested in collaborative R&D project ideas from academia and industry.
It’s not by chance 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 are also fantastic,” says Gorski.
For cell-based medicine there is nothing comparable to the BCH worldwide yet. So the BCH is one more factor making the German capital region a leading international location for healthcare innovation that can compete with the area around Harvard Medical School on the U.S. east coast and the companies based there.
Text: Olaf Bryan Wielk, ideenmanufaktur
Header image: © Dr. Agnieszka Rybak-Wolf, MDC, Organoids Platform