The German Research Foundation (DFG) has recently granted Ulm University funding for a research training group (RTG) into ”Cellular and Molecular Mechanisms of Ageing”. This again confirms the strength of ageing research at Ulm University. The granting of funds totalling three million euros over a period of four and a half years is an important indication of the continued strength of the small university, particularly as many were worried that the announcement of the departure of ageing researcher and Leibniz Prize winner Lenhard Rudolph would lead to major financial difficulties.
Hartmut Geiger, renowned stem cell researcher and spokesperson of the new RTG, points out that DFG reviewers first gave the green light for the Ulm researchers’ proposal back in summer 2012. By then, news of Lenhard Rudolph’s departure from the university at the end of the year was already known. So, in the broader picture of research and politics, the DFG’s funding approval and the granting of the new RTG can be seen as a very encouraging message: Ulm’s application-oriented and translational approach to ageing research is the right one.
The financial injection of four million euros will expand and consolidate the circle of Ulm University researchers whose work centres on the topic of ageing. Next to Cologne and Jena, Ulm is one of the key German institutions for research into ageing. The new RTG will initially have funds available for 11 doctoral students. It will involve many disciplines at Ulm University and also work together with researchers from abroad. Seminars, lectures, colloquiums and laboratory courses will focus on specific aspects of ageing research, which will help the doctoral students to broaden their horizon beyond their own specific research area. The objective of the new RTG is to train internationally competitive ageing researchers.
The new RTG is free to work on any ageing-related topic. “It is not just a case of offering standard education programmes, as research into ageing is fairly complex and requires us to work closely with other disciplines,” said Geiger, explaining the interdisciplinary cooperation between the eleven research groups that are looking into different aspects of ageing research. Some of the groups will be identifying differences while others will identify similarities in areas such as the ageing processes of the immune system, the stem cell system and the skin. This approach enables the doctoral students to react quickly to new scientific findings, related, for example, to new molecular interactions.
The researchers in Ulm have the specific advantage that their work has the potential to be turned into clinical applications, in other words, basic research can be “translated”, to use the current terminology. This is, amongst other things, due to being located on the Ulm University campus with numerous clinical research groups. A clinical research group (www.KFO142.de), also led by Hartmut Geiger, is involved in ten projects focusing on ageing processes and their mechanisms of action and also on clinical perspectives. Another project, SyStaR, which will receive funding of around 7.5 million euros between 2011 and 2016 from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), brings together clinicians, basic researchers, bioinformaticians and mathematicians. It takes a systems biology approach with the aim of investigating in detail the cellular and molecular processes of ageing. SyStaR’s long-term goal is to obtain a detailed understanding of the molecular causes of the age-dependent reduction of somatic and stem cell function as well as developing molecular therapies that improve organ maintenance and, in the broadest sense, prolong the phase of healthy ageing.
The future RTG participants can expect to be involved in a broad range of ageing research – from mesenchymal stem cells (Karin Scharffetter-Kochanek), stem cell DNA repair (Hartmut Geiger/Dermatology; Elisabeth Wiesmüller/Gynaecology) to immunology (Frank Kirchhoff/Molecular Virology; Reinhold Schirmbeck/Department of Internal Medicine I). The research also covers neuronal aspects of ageing (Albert Ludoph, Thomas Wirth, Birgit Liss and Christian Kubisch) and deals with the energy metabolism (Sebastian Iben/Dermatology) and leukaemia (Christian Buske/Experimental Tumour Research).
The RTG benefits from the existing structures at the university and recruits doctoral students in the same way as the International Research Training Group in Molecular Medicine, which is funded under the German government’s excellence initiative. It will also follow the example of the KFO 142 clinical group of researchers and invite guest speakers from all over the world; Gerald de Haan from the Medical Centre in the Dutch city of Groningen will be the first guest speaker. De Haan is one of the centre’s leading scientists in the field of the biology of ageing. There are plans to give doctoral students from the RTG the opportunity to spend some time at the Medical Centre in Groningen.
The new research training centre on ageing research is exactly what researchers like Hartmut Geiger might have wished for. In the medium term, Geiger hopes that an “Ageing Research Centre” will be established in Ulm; the establishment of the RTG is a step in the right direction and, if everything goes to plan, it can be expanded for another funding period. Geiger believes that if existing research structures started working together even more closely, it would lead to a suitable concept for establishing a cooperative research centre. According to Geiger, this close cooperation between basic research and clinical application and informatics is unique to Ulm.
With the inevitable ageing of the human population, an exponential increase in age-associated diseases such as dementia, muscle wasting, weakened immune defence and anaemia is practically preprogrammed. “Only improved and in-depth medical and biological knowledge of ageing mechanisms enable the development of new approaches for the treatment and prevention of age-related diseases,” said Geiger, who sees research into ageing as a highly relevant social issue.
Geiger has come up with causal relationships in his field of research that give him clear grounds to believe that certain ageing processes are reversible. In one of his recent publications, Geiger reported that it seems feasible to influence the ageing of adult stem cells in tissues (e.g. blood, small intestines, skin) that recruit mainly stem cells for tissue maintenance.
In the long term, Geiger plans to establish ageing research in Ulm in a sustainable fashion. In contrast to the medically oriented research training group, Geiger believes it will be necessary to broaden the topic to include subjects other than medicine. He is pleased with the close links with the Bethesda hospital in Ulm, which mainly focuses on geriatric medicine and he is also happy with the Department of Epidemiology’s keen interest in ageing research. This said, Geiger still believes that greater efforts need to be made to build knowledge about the problems and needs of the elderly.