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The DKFZ-ZMBH Alliance

The strategic alliance between the "Cell and Tumour Biology" research programme of the German Cancer Research Center and the Center for Molecular Biology at Universität Heidelberg has led to the development of one of the largest centres of basic biomedical research in Germany. The top international profile of this interdisciplinary institution, located at the interface between molecular and cellular biology, tumour biology and biomedicine, is reflected in the high-calibre speakers who will give presentations at the “DKFZ-ZMBH Alliance Forum on Aging & Cancer” to be held in Heidelberg between 19th and 21st May 2011.

Collaboration between researchers from different institutions is standard practice in science whereas the merger between a university institution and a centre of the Helmholtz Association is not. The Federalism Reform that was passed in Germany in October 2006 and which made university research and education issues virtually the exclusive responsibility of the German Länder, has made it much more difficult to establish institutionalised alliances between universities and national research centres such as the Helmholtz Association. It was the institutions themselves that worked hard to remove “the artificial barriers resulting from the Federalism Reform” (Professor Dr. J. Rüdiger Siewert, Chairman of the German Association of University Hospitals and Chief Medical Director of the University Hospital in Heidelberg) and to take measures to counteract the risk of an artificial separation emerging between basic research and translational, application-oriented research.

Model functions

Prof. Dr. Bernd Bukau, Director of the ZMBH, Life Sciences Faculty at the University of Heidelberg © University of Göttingen

The research alliance between the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and the Center for Molecular Biology at Universität Heidelberg (ZMBH) is a good example of the results of these efforts and a model for other mergers. The alliance agreement was signed in December 2007 by the directors of the DKFZ, Prof. Otmar Wiestler and Prof. Josef Puchta, the rector of  Universität Heidelberg, Prof. Bernhard Eitel, and the director of the ZMBH, Prof. Bernd Bukau. Prof. Bukau and Prof. Christof Niehrs, spokesperson of the DKFZ research programme “Cell and Tumour Biology”, acted as co-directors of the alliance during the initial phase of establishment.

Many points of contact between ZMBH and DKFZ

The establishment back in 1982 of the ZMBH as one of three German gene centres gave it the status of model institution. The ZMBH was designed to be a central university institution external to all faculties and was established with funds from the then German Federal Ministry of Research and Technology and companies in the industrial sector (BASF AG, Merck KGaA). Its independent work groups used a broad range of different approaches with the overall objective of understanding biological processes on the molecular level. In the thirty years since its establishment, the ZMBH has achieved a high level of international recognition and has become a model for further central research institutions that have since been established at universities.

The DKFZ was set up in 1964 and is a member of the Helmholtz Association of National Research Centres. It is the largest biomedical institution in Germany. The DKFZ is tasked with investigating the development of cancer, identifying cancer risk factors and developing new approaches for the prevention, reliable diagnosis and successful therapy of cancer. The DKFZ research groups are involved in seven research programmes. The “Cell and Tumour Biology” research programme that is involved in basic biomedical research, including important issues such as molecular embryology, epigenetics, signal transduction and cancer stem cell research, has close points of contact with the topics dealt with at the ZMBH.

ZMBH building on the Im Neuenheimer Feld Campus, Heidelberg, in direct vicinity to the DKFZ. © Universität Heidelberg

Related research interests, objectives and similar methodological approaches have led to the close connections between the ZMBH research groups and the DKFZ’s Cell and Tumour Biology research programme, and this is also facilitated by the geographical proximity of the two institutions.

The long-term cooperation between the two centres eventually led to the decision to bring the institutions together in an alliance and turn it into one of the Germany’s largest molecular and cellular life sciences research centres, which is able to set new international standards and reinforce Heidelberg’s leading position in this field by recruiting high-calibre scientists. 

The research results will be presented at the DKFZ-ZMBH Alliance Forum

Homepage of the “DKFZ-ZMBH Alliance Forum” 2011 © ZMBH

The Alliance has joint steering boards, enables the joint use of the two centres’ scientific and technical infrastructures and sets up joint research and funding programmes. The DKFZ-ZMBH Alliance is mainly focused on the molecular processes leading to biogenesis, maintenance, degeneration and deterioration of cells. The new centre is also tasked with the education, training and individual promotion of graduate, doctoral and post-doctoral students, the establishment of scientifically independent junior research groups, the administrative support of scientists in order to give them the necessary scope for creative interdisciplinary research, and the translation of research results into clinical application and support of technology transfer aimed at bringing research results into clinical research and application, in particular in the fields of ageing and cancer.

The DKFZ-ZMBH Alliance Forum entitled “Aging and Cancer 2011 - from molecules to organisms" will be held in Heidelberg in May 2011. The Alliance researchers and internationally leading experts will present and discuss their latest results.

At present, the DKFZ-ZMBH Alliance has 150 scientists with a doctorate and 200 doctoral students who work in 30 research units on three research programmes.

Research and education priorities

The eleven research groups of the “Structure, Function and Regulation of Biomolecules” research programme focus on the analysis of the structure-function relationship of biological macromolecules, the elucidation of their functional regulation and their interaction in biological machines and molecular networks. This also includes, among other things, the investigation of epigenetic control mechanisms, the regulation of the basal transcription machinery and mRNA, the folding and quality control of proteins as well as the intracellular processing of signals.

The “Organisation and Differentiation of Cells and Stem Cells” research programme also involves eleven research units. These units focus on the analysis of principles of molecular organisation and function that determine the characteristics and behaviour of cells. Basal cellular processes, including those responsible for intracellular protein transport and signal transduction as well as division, differentiation, architecture, migration and ageing of cells, are being investigated with the help of molecular and cell-biological methods.

The “Development and Regeneration, Degeneration, Aging and Cancer” research programme, which involves eight research units, focuses on the functional analysis of regulatory processes in the context of a tissue or an organism during embryonic development, tissue regeneration and tumorigenesis. In addition to in vitro organ cultures, the model organisms Drosophila melanogaster, Xenopus laevis and mice are being studied.

Further information on the research units is provided on the website of the DKFZ-ZMBH Alliance (external link: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.dewww.dkfz-zmbh-allianz.de/index_en.html). The research groups involved in the three programmes are closely interconnected through their focus on common research issues. The DKFZ-ZMBH Alliance is an important part of the Universität Heidelberg excellence concept, and many of its research groups are part of the Cellular Networks (CellNetworks) excellence cluster and the HBIGS (Hartmut Hoffmann-Berling International School of Molecular and Cellular Biology) graduate school, which was established under the German government's Excellence Initiative. Another element of the excellent promotion of young scientists is the “Helmholtz International Graduate School for Cancer Research". 

The research units have a common central administration and technological infrastructure that includes high-throughput analyses in proteomics and genomics research, light and electron microscopes, mass spectrometry and flow-through cytometry, animal facility and transgene service. In addition, there are core facilities that provide services related to RNAi screening and small molecule screening.

Optimal conditions for competitive research

Thomas Rachel, MdB, Parliamentary State Secretary in the BMBF © German Government

The DKFZ-ZMBH Alliance is a model for how the cooperation between a member of the Helmholtz Association and a university institution can create optimal conditions for carrying out internationally competitive research in a field that is of major public interest. It is a model that sets precedents.

“The strategic alliances between universities and non-university research institutions will play a crucial role in Germany in the future,” explained Thomas Rachel, Parliamentary State Secretary in the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Stimulated by the German government’s Excellence Initiative and based on the realisation that Helmholtz centres and universities can jointly contribute to solving important societal challenges in the field of healthcare, energy, environment and information technologies, cooperation models such as the “Jülich Aachen Research Alliance” (JARA) between the RWTH Aachen University and the Jülich Research Centre and the “Karlsruhe Institute of Technology” (KIT), a merger between the Karlsruhe Research Centre and the University of Karlsruhe, have been established.

In the meantime, similar cooperative organisations have led to the establishment of institutes in Mainz, Jena and Saarbrücken.

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/the-dkfz-zmbh-alliance