The Faculty of Medicine in Würzburg launched an internal strategy process in 2019 to re-define the future direction of its research profile. Based on a comprehensive and critical review of the prevailing research fields of all institutions within the Faculty and supported by external moderation, this process resulted in the definition of a novel research profile in 2020. By transcending the traditional, more clinically oriented research areas and exchanging them for three novel level-of-complexity-oriented research foci the Faculty aims to (i) represent the Faculty in its entirety more effectively, (ii) overcome borders between traditional disciplines, and (ii) foster interdisciplinarity. The three research areas are:
- cellular heterogeneity
- complexity within organ tissues
- system and network diseases
While focusing on the three newly defined research areas does not dispense from the necessity of excellent discipline-specific research, they provide a cross-disciplinary framework for joint projects that may eventuate in collaborative research initiatives.
The research activities of the Faculty of Medicine are focussed on five main themes, into which all preclinical, clinical-theoretical, and clinical disciplines are integrated.
Nosocomial pathogens, resistance, new causes of disease: Infectious diseases remain a global challenge. What makes pathogens dangerous, how they develop resistance, how a healthy body defends itself, and where new treatment approaches may lie –all this is the subject of research at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Würzburg. Here, scientists investigate not only bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites, but also the infected organism and how its immune systems responds to defend itself against pathogens. It is a matter of basic research that has its sights set firmly on possible future applications and current themes, such as the development of resistance and nosocomial pathogens. A striking feature is the close collaboration of different subject areas and faculties. This is particularly embodied in the Centre for Infection Research (ZINF), in which researchers working in the fields of medicine, biology, chemistry, and pharmacy illuminate from every possible angle how pathogen and host interact with one another, and gain in this fashion additional momentum in their work.
We aim to focus our understanding of molecular biology - the cellular building blocks, their functions, effects, and interactions - in detail. How do pathogens become dangerous to human beings and animals? How do they develop resistance towards drugs? How does the infected organism defend itself against the invaders? Which laboratory models allow us to simulate the processes in the human body? And which substances may be eligible as new drugs?
RNA is accorded a special role with respect to such questions. This class of molecules is an important link in cells in the assembly of proteins in accordance with the blueprint stipulated by genes. After having underestimated the significance of RNA for a long time, we are only now beginning to understand its role anew with respect to the myriad cell processes in pathogens and the human body. Würzburg is adopting a role as pioneer in this field and is developing novel RNA-based methods in the diagnostics of and fight against infectious diseases in close collaboration between clinics and research centres.
Life expectancy continues to rise and with it the number of cardiac and vascular disease cases: when calcium deposits form in the arteries and the vessel walls harden, high blood pressure, blood vessel occlusion, and finally heart attack become an increasing threat. This can lead to progressive heart failure, a condition from which an estimated 26 million people worldwide suffer. There is still no cure for these two destructive processes. However, initial albeit modest achievements indicate that the tide may perhaps turn at some point through metabolic intervention, gene therapy, or with artificially cultured heart muscle cells. Having said that, it would be best to thwart the changes to the vessels, prior to any damage occurring to the heart or brain.
Cardiovascular research at the University of Würzburg is thus dedicated to both prevention and cure. The German Centre for Heart Failure (DZHI) (website currently only in German), located in Würzburg, and Collaborative Research Centre (SFB) 688 "Cell-cell Interactions in the Cardiovascular System" cover a very wide range: The focus does not only lie on the smaller and smallest of building blocks in the body, the genes and proteins. Techniques of molecular and cellular imaging are also being developed that will allow us to visualize these microprocesses. Therapeutic and healthcare research is playing a significant role in order to improve continually treatment concepts for patients, taking integrated, psychological, ethical, and sociomedical approaches into account.
In unprecedented multidisciplinary projects, the University of Würzburg is delivering answers that are both impressive and acknowledged worldwide, such as which agents act on patients individually, how deactivating a single enzyme (coagulation factor XII) improves the flow characteristics of blood and prevents vascular occlusion without the risk of bleeding, or that psychological disorders of patients with heart problems need special treatment.
SFB 688 and the DZHI bundle and network together the research activities, including those of non-medical fields such as chemistry, physics, and biology. Founded on the basic research performed by SFBs, the DZHI then develops new therapy guidelines and healthcare structures. In total, five clinics, twelve institutes and chairs, three interdisciplinary centres, as well as five further institutions are involved in cardiovascular research, making this globally unique.
In recent years, a number of large national and international research projects have emerged from the Musculoskeletal Center Würzburg (MCW) in the field of regenerative medicine and biomaterials research. This has made Würzburg an internationally visible and recognized center in this field. Most recently, these research activities have been extended in terms of structure. The first ever professorship for biofabrication in Germany was created at the University of Würzburg. Moreover, the Fraunhofer Translational Center for Cancer and Musculoskeletal Diseases was established as a joint institution of the Fraunhofer Society and University Hospital Würzburg, in order to support and catalyze the translation of research results into clinic. The most recent development in this context is the instigation of a so-called Key Laboratory Polymers in Medicine within the Bavarian Polymer Institute (BPI). The Key Laboratory focuses on research into polymer-based biomaterials with a special focus on biofabrication. Both the translational center and the Key Laboratory were established with financial support from the State of Bavaria. Figure 1 displays schematically the relation and cooperation between the three core units, which will be introduced in more detail in the following.