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Regenerative medicine in Tübingen

Excellence feeds excellence: Tübingen has become a lynchpin for regenerative medicine.

The STERN BioRegion is characterised by a unique cluster of competence in the field of regenerative biology and medicine. Academic institutions make an important contribution to this excellence, as does the young, highly dynamic biotechnology industry of the area. This competence was nationally acknowledged in 2001 when BioRegio STERN Management GmbH won the BMBF BioProfile competition. After gaining this award, the region has been allocated funding to the tune of more than 22 million euros. These funds have been used to support research and development activities as well as to turn biotechnological and medical technological products into marketable commodities and regenerative therapies into clinical application.

The latest milestone on the road to the STERN region becoming an international centre of excellence in the field of regenerative medicine is the establishment of the Centre for Regenerative Biology and Regenerative Medicine (ZRM) in Tübingen.

Prof. Dr. Konrad Kohler, Koordinator ZRM (Foto: privat)

Prof. Dr. Konrad Kohler, Koordinator ZRM (Foto: privat)

From basic research to clinical application

Regenerative medicine means providing the diseased organism with the means for self-repair. The regenerative capacities of the body are activated and strengthened in a particular way. An important part of the work of regenerative experts is done outside of the body: in the field of tissue engineering, the regenerative potential of adult cells is used to produce new cells and tissue in vitroi, functional units from different tissues and sometime in the future it will even be possible to produce entire organs for transplant.

The human body consists of approximately 200 different cell types. While the cultivation of a single type of tissue is relatively easy, the cultivation of functional units made up of different cell types is an enormous challenge that has only just begun. Tissue engineering, in the case of cultivation of natural skin for example, might prove to be one of the great turning points in medicine. Researchers from Tübingen have already made enormous progress in this field and further projects have been started.

Interdisciplinary cooperation leads to success

Does regenerative medicine mean the end of an era for artificial substitutes such as polymer heart valves? Probably not as yet. In fact, we can currently observe the coexistence and, increasingly, the combination of metallic, synthetic and regenerative materials. This is particularly evident in the cultivation of surfaces with cells. This topic is a joint effort by biologists, physicians, technicians and engineers associated with the ZRM. The scientists are looking into the biological coating of metals and polymers that are introduced into the body – be it as instruments or as functional implants such as heart valves, nerve guidance channels or hearing prostheses.

In general, research at the interface between the life sciences and material sciences as well as the further development of insights gained in basic research into clinical therapies, requires the close interdisciplinary cooperation of natural scientists, medical doctors and engineers. Tübingen and its broad spectrum of university and non-university research institutions, offers a unique environment for working in such a way. The high density of biotechnology companies in the region providing test systems and transferring research into certified medical devices is vital. For example, the leading companies in the field of autologousi chondrocytei transplantion (ACT) are located in the STERN region.

ACT involves the cultivation of new cartilage from a patient’s autologous cartilage tissue. The new cartilage can be used to replace cartilage damaged as a result of traumatic injuries. This method is not only currently used at the Tübingen University Hospital but is being developed further. The researchers are aiming to develop a cartilage substitute for use in degenerative diseases such as arthrosisi.

This example shows that the regenerative experts from Tübingen are way ahead of their time: Whereas elsewhere there is still much debate as to whether insurance companies should reimburse the costs of regenerative therapies, researchers and companies in the STERN region are actively working to broaden the fields of application of regenerative medicine.

Adult stem cells as an opportunity with high future potential

The same is also true for therapeutic cell applications. The legal restrictions and ethical problems associated with work involving embryonic stem cells have led to researchers in Germany turning to adult stem cells. Although these cells are not pluripotent, i.e. able to develop into any kind of cell, as their embryonic precursors, they are still multipotent. For example, blood stem cells from the spinal marrow can differentiate into all kinds of blood cells. Scientists at the institutes in Tübingen are not only focusing their research on the function and application of known adult stem-cell types, but the researchers are also looking for new stem-cell sources. At the moment, the researchers are investigating the therapeutic potential of stem cells originating from the intestinal wall or spermatogonia, which are immature germinal cells from male gonads.

In the field of oncology, regenerative medicine has already given rise to successful therapies. For example, it is possible to successfully treat certain leukaemias in children through the transplantation of stem cells. A major research approach focuses on using stem cells to induce damaged tissue of an infarcted heart to regenerate and repair itself.

In the meantime, natural regenerative mechanisms of the human body which were impossible to detect using the previously available examination methods, are now known. For example, it has been discovered that nerve cells are also able to regenerate in the adult organism and that nerve fibres can grow back again after they have been damaged. In this context, the reactivation of certain growth factor genes is of great importance. Research in Tübingen is also focused on the examination of growth factors which is one part of the numerous projects looking into regenerative medicine.

leh - November 2006 © BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH, first published at www.bio-pro.de<, the Biotech/Life Sciences Portal of the State of Baden-Württemberg. All rights reserved.

Further information:

University Hospital of Tübingen
Center for Regenerative Biology and Regenerative Medicine zrm

Prof. Dr. Konrad Kohler
Paul-Ehrlich-Str. 15
72076 Tübingen

Tel.: 07071 2985030
Fax: 07071 295124
konrad [dot] kohler [at] uni-tuebingen [dot] de