A holistic view of complex disease processes
Bonn/Germany, September 14, 2020. The German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) is expanding its research activities to include the area of “systems medicine”. The focus is on the network of relationships between the mechanisms of brain diseases. Findings in this field are intended to pave the way for new treatment options — especially for therapies that are individually tailored to the patient. Joachim Schultze, genome researcher and immunologist from Bonn, heads the new research area.
“Systems medicine regards diseases as complex events and considers them in their entirety. It is a matter of looking at the big picture and asking how disease mechanisms are interrelated. While still relatively young, this approach is finding its way into more and more areas of medical research,” said Joachim Schultze, newly appointed Director of Systems Medicine at the DZNE and previously already a research group leader at the DZNE and a professor at the University of Bonn. “The aim is to understand the system. However, system is in fact a scalable term. Depending on your question, it might refer to a cell, the brain, the effect of environmental factors on the genome or to other systems or networks of relationships that are relevant to a disease. The focus is not on a single specific disease process. It is always about seeing such an element in a broader context.”
Within the DZNE, various research areas act in close cooperation to investigate the causes of diseases of the brain and nervous system. The new research field will complement the DZNE’s existing focus areas: fundamental research, clinical research, population health sciences and health care research. “There will be a lively exchange and many links,” said Schultze.
State-of-the-art technologies and big data
In systems medicine, state-of-the-art tools of laboratory-oriented research and medicine are applied. Moreover, this discipline benefits from developments in computer and software technology. “The DZNE already utilizes such resources and some of our research groups are already doing system-oriented research. They are quasi the initial nucleus of our new research area, which we want to develop further in the long term”, said Schultze.
In particular, the new research area will incorporate the DZNE’s expertise in single cell analysis and other so-called OMICs technologies. “These methods allow detailed insights into molecular processes, for example into the activity of all genes within a cell. This means that you don’t pick out a single gene, but look at the gene activity in its entirety,” said Schultze. Such data can help to assign patients to different disease stages or disease variants, he explained. “This in turn is helpful for diagnosis and therapy. The more precisely I know the status of a disease, the more precisely I can treat it. This is an example of personalized medicine. We want to pave the way for such precisely tailored medical interventions for diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or ALS.”
The new research area will also benefit from the DZNE’s experience in artificial intelligence and memory-driven computing. This concerns the analysis of large amounts of data, such as genome data or brain scans. “We want to train artificial intelligence algorithms, for example, to detect pathological changes in the brain. Such digital tools could support and improve diagnosis,” said Schultze.
In the long term, the Bonn-based researcher also wants to integrate data from mobile devices into the DZNE’s research on systems medicine. “Laboratory techniques can be used to elucidate molecular processes. In medicine, however, much can also be learned through mere observation. Observation plays an essential role in medical diagnosis. And today there are smartphones and other mobile devices that can be used to record sleep patterns or other behavior, for example,” said Schultze. “Such information might help to learn more about neurodegenerative diseases and facilitate early diagnosis.”
In general, digitalization offers enormous opportunities for medical research, said Schultze. “Of course, all those affected have to be involved and data protection has to be taken into account. We need a social debate on the potential of systems medicine. Here, I see science as having a duty to engage into a debate. We need to inform, but we also have to face up to the discussion.”
On the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE)
The DZNE investigates all aspects of neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in order to develop novel approaches of prevention, treatment, and health care. The DZNE is comprised of ten sites across Germany and cooperates closely with universities, university hospitals, and other institutions on a national and international level. The DZNE is a member of the Helmholtz Association.