Whenever tissue is damaged in the body – e.g. through infarctions, autoimmune diseases and infections – inflammation occurs. It is the immune system’s instantanious reaction to external stimuli and acute dangers and, in principle, something positive: inflammation limits damage and promotes the healing process. But the body is not always able to bring the situation under control and inflammation can become life-threatening or chronic, permanently impairing the function of organs. A challenge medicine is facing, at present, is to predict how inflammation will progress.
We are analysing when and where different immune cells become active in the organism when inflammation occurs, via which molecular mechanisms they interact with each other and their environment, and which specific functions they have in the inflammation of different organs. In tackling these questions, we incorporate different imaging technologies – both microscopic and whole-body methods – into our investigations and integrate information gathered from the individual cellular level up to the level of the entire organism. We expect that this holistic view will allow us to identify links between cellular inflammation mechanisms and the function of organs. This “multiscale imaging” requires new chemical-biological strategies to label the same cell type, or even the same cell, with different signal transmitters, e.g. with fluorescent, magnetic or radioactive molecules, because these generate signals that become visible through different imaging technologies. New challenges are also posed by the need to integrate data sets from different imaging techniques to recognise complex patterns in cell behaviour on a holistic level. Mathematical models and the training of artificial intelligence – so-called deep learning – play an essential role here.
In the long term, we expect our results to lead to new diagnostic approaches for clinical imaging modalities such as nuclear imaging, magnetic resonance imaging and photoacoustic imaging. Such methods could help detect inflammation associated with, for example, heart attacks, autoimmune diseases that lead to inflammation of the joints, skin or intestines, and bacterial infections in the lungs or kidneys. They could finally help to find and assess the efficacy of an immunoregulatory therapy that is tailored to individual patients.
The individual projects within our Collaborative Research Centre are grouped into three project areas and pursue two overarching lines of research that drive and advance each other: Our projects are, to varying degrees, dedicated to both developing imaging methods (blue) and/or using them to analyse inflammatory processes (orange). It is anticipated that the investigations will lead to the generation of new biomedical hypotheses, the verification of which will likely pose new challenges necessitating further methodological development. This research concept requires a high level of interaction between the disciplines involved, which is why experts from different disciplines including medicine, biology, biochemistry, chemistry, physics, mathematics and computer science work together not only in the context of the entire network, but also within the individual projects.