Short profile of our research

  • Cells in motion


    A fibroblast from a mouse moves forward using a “lamellipodium”. Researchers in our network have discovered that I-BAR proteins accumulate at the front end of the lamellipodium as a result of the curvature of the cell membrane. As a consequence, the cell can locally arrange the protein actin (green), and the lamellipodium grows again. This self-organising system enables cells to move in the same direction over a long distance, forming search patterns. The study was published in the journal “Nature Physics” in 2019.
    © Isabell Begemann, Milos Galic
    • New blood vessels sprout from a vessel network that already exists. In this process, the vessels’ endothelial cells move forward, rearrange themselves and form new contacts with other neighbouring cells. Researchers in our network have discovered that the extension of endothelial cells becomes highly important during this process. The cell contact protein VE-cadherin (green), which occurs on the surface of endothelial cells, also has an important function. The study was published in the journal “Nature Communications” in 2018.
      © Cao et al./Nature Communications
    • Which molecular mechanisms are at work when, in the case of inflammation, immune cells migrate from the blood vessel into the tissue? Researchers in our network have gained insight into this question: The protein laminin 511 (red) influences how closely blood vessel cells are connected and inhibits the migration of immune cells (green) through the endothelial cell layer (blue) of the blood vessels. Immune cells migrate preferentially into the tissue at sites of low or no laminin expression (arrows). The study was published in the journal “Cell Reports” in 2017.
      © Song et al./Cell Reports

    Every process within every organism involves molecules and cells and their interactions. In order to understand these dynamic processes, researchers in the Cells in Motion Interfaculty Centre study not only relationships between the individual components within a cell but also interactions between cells. We investigate which biochemical and biophysical properties of a cell influence its behaviour, how these properties are determined by genes and how the dynamic cellular processes in an organism remain in healthy balance, which is called homeostasis. We concentrate mainly on cellular processes that occur in blood and lymphatic vessels and their impact on organ function – not only during vessel development but also when they are fully formed in the mature organism.

    By learning more about the molecular mechanisms that govern normal organ function in a healthy organism, we are able to draw conclusions as to what happens in the body in different diseases and analyse how healthy cellular systems can develop into diseased systems. Here, we are especially interested in inflammation, during which immune cells migrate out of blood vessels into tissues to fight infections or to repair tissue damage. However, inflammatory reactions may vary depending on the organ and the vessel type in which they occur, and in autoimmune diseases they are falsely directed against cells of the own organism. Studying mechanisms that explain these different scenarios is a focus of our research.

  • Innovative imaging


    Researchers in our network have developed a method to better evaluate and study the migration of inflammatory cells in mice: They have succeeded in genetically modifying precursors of immune cells, then increasing their numbers in a test tube and finally tracking them spatially and temporally in living organisms using different imaging methods. The picture shows the spatial and temporal distribution of immune cells (red) in the body of a mouse with an inflammatory skin disease. The study was published in the journal “Theranostics” in 2018.
    © S. Gran & L. Honold et al./Theranostics 2018(8)
    • Researchers in our network have developed a new method for producing digital 3D reconstructions of blood and lymphatic vessels from tissue samples and then creating images of them for analysis. The picture shows a 3D computer reconstruction of a healthy human skin biopsy. The spatial arrangement of blood vessels (white) and lymphatic vessels (red) is distinctly visible. The study was published in the journal “JCI Insight” in 2017.
      © R. Hägerling et al./JCI Insight
    • Researchers in our network have succeeded in visualizing, for the first time, ongoing inflammation in the brain in patients suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS). Left picture: Blood vessels of the brain (white, cross-section) have a special structure that makes them particularly tight, establishing the so-called blood-brain barrier. Studying mice, the research team found that specific enzymes (MMPs, green) allow immune cells (red) to penetrate this barrier and cause inflammation in the brain. Centre picture: Using a fluorescent MMP tracer, initially in mice, researchers were able to visualize active MMPs only at the site of inflammation in the brain. Right picture: A radioactively labelled variant of the tracer accumulated in a defined area in the brain of an MS patient. The study was published in the journal "Science Translational Medicine" in 2016.
      © Korpos (left) / Gerwien, Faust, Sorokin, Schäfers (centre) / Sci. Transl. Med. 8 (2016), Gerwien & Hermann et al. (right)

    To address biomedical questions, we systematically employ imaging methods to see cells and molecules in tissues and organs. These range from high-resolution light microscopy to whole-body imaging methods which reveal structures or processes in the entire organism. Commencing with a detailed analysis of the environment within and around cells, our field of view becomes ever broader as we “zoom out” to ask: How does the cell behave in tissues, in organs and in the entire organism? To bridge these questions and different spatial dimensions, we pursue a unique strategy in our science network: We develop chemical and mathematical methods that can be employed in different imaging methods with different resolutions. Only in this way is it possible to examine the same cell in various spatial dimensions over time, using a variety of imaging methods. This approach promotes the transfer of methods that are applied to model organisms – for example fruit flies, zebrafish and mice – to clinical imaging methods for patient diagnosis. One example of translating basic research to a clinical application has been the visualisation of ongoing inflammation in the brains of multiple sclerosis patients.

  • Interdisciplinary research

    In our scientific field, researchers from medicine, biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and computer science work together. Research questions and results from the different disciplines drive and advance each other: Biologists and medical researchers, for example, identify molecules critical for specific cellular processes, and chemists develop new substances and signalers that bind to such molecules or cells to make them visible using imaging methods. Physicists develop detectors that capture specific signals for biomedical imaging as well as new measurement techniques that can analyse biophysical parameters, such as forces acting between cells. Mathematicians and computer scientists develop algorithms, some of which use artificial intelligence – so-called machine learning – to process and analyse the resulting large quantities of complex data. In this way, a computer may recognize specific patterns of cell behaviour in many different tissues that are not otherwise visible; thereby, biomedical questions can be answered and, at the same time, new research directions are identified.

    When researchers with different areas of expertise and approaches interact, this promotes scientific creativity and enables decisive progress. Our research network’s combination of scientific and clinical perspectives also facilitates the transfer of basic research results into clinical applications.