Gaining a better understanding of inflammatory diseases
Inflammation is associated with a wide range of different disease conditions such as bacterial or viral infections, cancer, Alzheimer's, and diabetes. Researching the numerous different inflammatory reactions, however, requires the cooperation of scientists from a host of different disciplines. The Max Planck – The University of Tokyo Center of Integrative Inflammology is intended to offer such a platform for networking with a view to combining research projects from both organisations and facilitating the exchange of experience between scientific disciplines. "Inflammation research will be one of the key topics in medicine in the coming years. The only way for us to improve the diagnosis and treatment of inflammatory conditions in the future is for the various different research disciplines that have mostly worked separately up to now to begin working together," said Peter Gruss, President of the Max Planck Society on the occasion of the contract signing.
Inflammatory reactions protect the body from damage by stimuli such as pathogens and degenerated cells. These mechanisms, however, are precisely regulated so as to not overreact, otherwise the defensive reaction does more harm than good. Chronic inflammation in particular can cause tissue damage and thus exacerbate an existing condition or provoke a new one.
A whole range of different cells, messenger substances and signalling pathways are involved in inflammatory reactions, and the scientists from the Max Planck Society and The University of Tokyo will attempt to learn more about the relationships between them. "Until now, inflammology did not exist as an individual discipline, so as yet there are no networks connecting the scientists who work on the various aspects of this research field. The new centre is thus intended to bring together the different approaches and carry out integrated research into inflammation," explains Rudolf Grosschedl of the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg, who, together with Tadatsugu Taniguchi of The University of Tokyo, will be Co-Director of the new centre.
The new centre will focus on three main research areas. The first of these will be research into the cells involved in inflammation, wherein white blood cells in particular play a key role. To provoke inflammatory reactions in tissue, white blood cells must leave the blood vessels. We still do not know in detail, however, how the cells attach themselves to and pass through the vessel walls, so this will be investigated further. The research group will also explore which genetic factors control the creation and functioning of immune cells, known as B cells and T cells, as well as how new blood vessels and lymphatic vessels are created.
A second research group will investigate the signalling substances that control inflammatory reactions. These include soluble messenger substances like cytokines and interleukins as well as proteins on the surfaces of cells to which immune cells can adhere. There is currently insufficient research into how these molecules interact with other signalling substances such as neurotransmitters and hormones. In addition, the researchers will analyse the factors that can arise due to insulin resistance and obesity and are thus involved in chronic inflammatory conditions such as diabetes. They also want to find out why diabetes sufferers are particularly at risk of contracting tuberculosis.
Inflammation is often the result of bacterial or viral infection, provoking or exacerbating secondary conditions. A third research group will thus concentrate on the interactions between the affected organism and common germs such as the pathogenic agents responsible for inflammation of the gastric mucosa (Helicobacter pylori) and for tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis), as well as the herpes and flu viruses. They will also be investigating the interaction between the immune cells of patients suffering co-infections, e.g. tuberculosis and flu.
The Center of Integrative Inflammology is initially set to operate for five years and will be located on The University of Tokyo campus. Scientists will thus benefit from its proximity to the university hospital, with which the centre will cooperate closely. The researchers will not work solely at the centre itself, however, but also at the participating Max Planck Institutes and The University of Tokyo. Regular visits between partner institutions will promote the intensive exchange of ideas and findings. A further objective is to nurture the next generation of scientists. The centre will thus offer training programmes for PhD students and research residencies at the laboratories of the partner institutions, enabling young scientists to become familiar with this new field of integrative inflammology. In addition, particularly talented young scientists will have the opportunity of carrying out independent research for a period of five years as Max Planck Junior Fellows.
Picture: Section of uninflamed mouse colon showing regulatory T cells (nucleus: blue, membrane: red) close to intestinal epithelial cells (green). (©: Maria Brack)