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Focusing is the strength of the Cluster of Excellence "Inflammation at Interfaces!”


Interview with Chair of the Advisory Board, Rudi Balling

Combining expertise in various disciplines with a focus on inflammation at interfaces is the greatest strength of the Schleswig-Holstein Cluster of Excellence "Inflammation at Interfaces”, according to Professor Rudi Balling. In an interview, the Director of the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine takes an external look at the Cluster’s research achievements and sees great potential, above all, in joining research and healthcare in the direction of “precision medicine”.

The interview has been published in the Cluster’s annual report for 2016, which has now been issued.

Professor Balling, as Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board you have been supervising and advising the Cluster of Excellence “Inflammation at Interfaces” since 2014 on strategic and scientific issues. What made you take up this office?

Rudi Balling: If you look on a global scale as to where something started, without there being an obvious locational advantage beforehand, then you look towards Kiel and Lübeck. Here, individual and outstanding scientists have built a lighthouse over the past 10 to 15 years through excellent science. The Cluster of Excellence “Inflammation at Interfaces” has drawn attention from around the world by focusing on such inflammation research. We were able to carry out real pioneering work through genetics research, the investigation of inflammatory bowel diseases and intensive infection research. That was pretty great. I can only say that you shouldn’t underestimate the periphery. When I went to Braunschweig, they all said, why is he leaving Munich to go to Braunschweig? Nobody actually realizes what a great place Braunschweig is to live and to research in. And I think the same applies for the North of Germany.

What are the specific strengths of the Cluster, in your opinion?
Interdisciplinarity is the crucial factor. We have also found this in completely different sectors. Innovation always arises where different disciplines meet, where interdisciplinarity is practiced. You can see it here, too. A topic has emerged, out of medicine, with medically, socially and scientifically relevant issues. We have known for a very long time that inflammatory processes play an overall role across diseases. The expertise of non-university research centers around the universities in Kiel and Lübeck was incorporated into the Cluster. These institutes research specific topics, i.e. they have a focus. And here a cross-connection has been created, so that they cooperate with one another. From the scientific perspective, this is a unique feature.

What does the Cluster mean for Schleswig-Holstein as a science location? Is it internationally competitive?
Definitely. You only need to look at the publication records. The Cluster can easily keep up with the research strongholds in Munich, Berlin or Heidelberg, obviously on a focused basis, not in terms of breadth. Focusing is without a doubt the strength of the Cluster of Excellence "Inflammation at Interfaces”. One area that is struggling slightly is the direct implementation in the form of jobs. The assumption that a network of high-tech companies would set up as a result of the research activities has not yet been realized. But I am optimistic here. Where this has happened and is sure to continue to happen is in the vicinity of university hospitals. You can see this particularly in the US. Starting from Harvard Medical School and the associated hospitals in Boston, numerous high-tech and IT companies have been set up nearby, close to Stanford University in California, the medical technology sector, among others, is being pushed. In Germany, you can only see this in Tübingen, Heidelberg and now in Berlin.

A decisive factor for this development is cooperation between research and healthcare. This goes well beyond a patent in biotechnology. It is much more about changing medicine in the direction of personalized or individualized medicine. This includes new medical processes which have effects on health economics. The investment into research then pays off. The problematic aspect in this regard is that a career at German university hospitals is very difficult for researching clinicians. These top individuals, who treat patients and also simultaneously conduct successful research, form the bridge which brings findings from science into the hospitals. An understanding of this barely exists within the university hospitals. And here again, the Northern Cluster is an exception.

In what way?
The state has set up a support program: the Schleswig-Holstein Excellence-Chairs. These chairs are mainly occupied by people who have a foothold in the university hospitals. These bridges are structurally the most important thing that modern medicine now needs. We are facing a drastic loss in the number and quality of researching clinicians, because this career path is no longer an attractive one. If we are not careful, the chain will break. Then we will not have enough professors in clinical medicine in the future, who are still able to practice and teach.

Where do you expect to see progress through the work of the Cluster in future?
I expect new findings on how chronic inflammatory diseases actually occur. Insight into these mechanisms is the central basis and the most important part in terms of achieving prevention, early diagnosis and treatments. Over the last three years, when I have been following this closely, I have been impressed by how quickly research findings from the Cluster of Excellence are translated into clinical studies when the structures permit this. This quick implementation is a real advantage and ensures that we stay ahead of the game. And it also attracts the industry. I expect the fastest findings in this respect from the current clinical studies on nutrition.
Another important aspect, in my opinion, is not to lose the connection to information technology. Bioinformatics, artificial intelligence - IT is currently revolutionizing medicine. Medical Data Science will completely turn medicine upside down. So you can never invest too early in data storage and security, and we must train doctors with competent IT skills.

Does the work of the Cluster also have an effect on patient care?
I’m sure it does! It is already the case that people who take part in clinical trials generally have an advantage. Good clinical research definitely benefits a location and the people in that location. When this message reaches the general population, those who are politically responsible also receive positive support from their voters.

Rudi Balling 2017

Rudi Balling, Director of the “Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine” at the University of Luxembourg and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) at the Cluster of Excellence "Inflammation at Interfaces".
Photo: Kerstin Nees

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