An interface between physics and medicine

Cooperation agreement for a new interdisciplinary centre in Erlangen was signed on 25 July

July 25, 2017

Malign forces are at work in some diseases – including purely physical ones. Inflammation, infection or even a tumour arise in the body, a swelling forms that exerts forces on both the affected and surrounding tissue. Such physical factors and the resulting therapeutic approaches will be investigated by scientists at the Zentrum für Physik und Medizin, ZPM (Centre for Physics and Medicine), in Erlangen. The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light (MPL), the Universitätsklinikum Erlangen and the Friedrich Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) plan to join forces at the ZPM to explore medically relevant questions concerning biophysics and biomathematics. Martin Stratmann, President of the Max Planck Society, Ilse Aigner, Bavarian Minister of Economic Affairs and Media, Energy and Technology, Joachim Hornegger, President of Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, and Heinrich Iro, Medical Director of the Universitätsklinikum Erlangen signed the cooperation agreement for the project, for which the Bavarian state government has provided 60 million euros in funding, on 25 July.

The fact that the chemistry must be right to ensure good health has been standard medical knowledge since the mid-19th century. It is confirmed by numerous biochemistry textbooks and by the drugs available to doctors to intervene in the body’s biochemical machinery. However, for an organism to function perfectly, the physics must also be right. The influence of physics starts with the forces at work between cells and during cell division, affects the body temperature, oxygen content and pressures, which are precisely regulated for the different tissues, and is far from ending with the elasticity and stiffness that differentiates health cells from diseased ones.

Physical processes that play a role in diseases

Modern medicine has long been inconceivable without physics, as without its achievements there would be no stethoscopes or x-ray machines, not to mention magnetic resonance imaging or positron emission tomography, or MRI and PET scans as they are called.  “Physics offers previously unsuspected possibilities for the study and characterisation of diseased tissue and for researching and influencing illnesses,” says Georg Schett, Director of the Department of Medicine 3 –Rheumatology and Immunology at the Universitätsklinikum Erlangen.

It is precisely these possibilities that scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light (MPL) in Erlangen, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg and the Universitätsklinikum Erlangen aim to exploit with the support of the federal state of Bavaria. “The Zentrum für Physik und Medizin will be unique in the world because, in comparison to similar research institutes, we concentrate more strongly on the physical processes that play a role in the emergence of diseases and could point the way to new therapies,” says Vahid Sandoghdar, Director at the MPL and one of the initiators of the new centre.

The biomechanics of inflammation and tumours

The researchers at the ZPM will study, among other things, acute and chronic inflammation processes which are also relevant in many forms of cancer. “What doctors know about inflammation up to now is mainly based on isolating individual cells from tissue and analysing their behaviour,” says Markus F. Neurath, Director of Department of Medicine 3 –Gastroenterology, Pneumology and Endocrinology. “We are still largely ignorant about the processes at work in the intercellular spaces and in larger cell complexes in the living organism.”

In addition, doctors currently approach inflammation from a predominantly biochemical perspective and concentrate on the proteins that control the associated changes. “We firmly believe, however, that it is also worth gaining a better understanding of the physical processes involved in inflammation,” says Georg Schett. “The biomechanics of inflammation and tumours are completely unexplained.” Doctors observe that the cells in a focus of inflammation and tumour move extremely efficiently and in this way ensure the spread of the disease. It is not yet known how they manage to do this in the dense cell complex that surrounds them. The researchers at the ZPM would therefore like to find out how and why the stiffness and elasticity of cells changes when they become diseased. If doctors had a better understanding of such processes, they could try to use the cell’s mechanical properties as a therapeutic target and in this way prevent the spread of a disease.

Methods needed for measuring intercellular spaces

To be able to study the physical factors at work in the emergence and treatment of diseases, the researchers still have to develop suitable methods and instruments in some cases. “We are still unable to measure many of the physiologically relevant parameters between the cells,” says Markus F. Neurath. This applies not only to physical parameters like temperature, forces and cell mobility, but also to chemical characteristics like the pH value, salt content and the concentration of free radicals between the cells. The measurement of oxygen, amino acids and other metabolites in the micromilieu of the tissue is equally challenging. “These parameters play an important role in the immune response to infection and tumours as they have a crucial influence on the protective function of immune cells. We are dependent on our collaboration with physicists for the development of measurement methods for use in the intercellular spaces,” says Christian Bogdan, Director of the Institute for Clinical Microbiology, Immunology and Hygiene at the Universitätsklinikum Erlangen.

The researchers need not always start from scratch here. “In many cases a method already exists for measuring a particular characteristic, but it is not sensitive enough or suitable for use between cells,” says Vahid Sandoghdar. “Researchers at the ZPM will be able to exploit the abundance of basic and technical knowledge available in experimental physics to make it possible to carry out innovative measurements in the biological tissue. As we recently showed with a number of examples at the MPL, optical processes for sensing and imaging with very high local and temporal resolution look particularly promising in this context.”

A simultaneous interpreter between physicists and medics

The individual research topics that will be pursued at the ZPM depend ultimately on the scientists appointed to work there. Based on the current plan, a new department of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light, two new chairs of biophysics and mathematics in the life sciences, the (currently vacant) chair of medical physics at the FAU, and five other research groups will be based there. The federal state of Bavaria is providing 60 million euros for the construction of the centre and its initial scientific fit-out.

Along with the different disciplines, a wide range of scientific cultures and languages will come together in the new building. “Physics and medicine are very different as disciplines,” says Georg Schett. This is obvious, not least, from the way that physicists and medics use different specialist languages. “In a way, the centre will function like a simultaneous interpreter for the disciplines,” says Schett. And when the physicists and medics succeed in learning to understand each other there, new possibilities for gaining a better understanding of diseases, and thus also the treatment of patients, will also arise.

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