Only few physicians carry out scientific work in parallel to their everyday work in the hospital. But both doctors and patients alike benefit from close links between research and clinic. One aim of the Cells-in-Motion Cluster of Excellence is to bring people with different expertise together and to promote the transfer of basic research findings to clinical applications. This has been the important force behind the establishment of CiM Clinical Translational Professorships and the new master's degree course in Experimental Medicine.
Improving Strategies for Treatment
It is early Tuesday morning and Prof. Georg Lenz is in the oncological outpatient department at the Münster University Hospital. Georg Lenz, a specialist in lymph node cancer, has just returned from his rounds to visit patients. Now, however, he takes off his doctor’s coat … to exchange it for a lab coat. He works both as a medical doctor in the University Hospital and a researcher in the Medical Faculty of the University of Münster and moves between wards and his laboratory where he investigates mechanisms that give rise to lymph node cancer.
The fact that Georg Lenz works in research and is also a medical doctor is special. Traditionally, experimental basic research and hospital practice run almost separately from each other. Scientists investigate how cells behave in the body, on the basis of which therapies are developed that are eventually used by medical doctors to treat patients. Scientists and doctors are trained in different ways and use different approaches but both types of training are required for optimal clinician research.
An important aim of the Cells-in-Motion Cluster of Excellence is to promote translational work, i.e. the transfer of results from experimental basic research to clinical application. This led to the establishment of CiM Clinical Translational Professorships, one of which is the CiM Professorship of Translational Oncology held by Georg Lenz since 2014. Throughout Germany there are very few positions that allow such cross-over activity even though it greatly benefits both doctors and patients, for example, when therapies have to be personally tailored. “It is important that whoever is undertaking research on a disease should know how it manifests in the patient,” says Georg Lenz. “This has a decisive influence on both the experimental setup and the interpretation of results,” he adds.
The group headed by Georg Lenz consists of physicians and natural scientists. “We doctors can benefit enormously from this collaboration,” he says. He is in the laboratory now to discuss the latest experimental results with his team. His interdisciplinary team headed a worldwide clinical trial that ended in January 2016 on new medications for recurring aggressive lymph node cancer. What Lenz and his team would like to deduce from the results of the trial is whether new therapies are possible. “Our long-term aim is to make significant improvements to strategies for treatment,” says Georg Lenz. “Here in Münster we benefit from a very high degree of networking between scientists and clinicians and from the physical proximity to one another,” he adds. Lenz is now already on his way back to the wards to see his patients, where he will discuss how their illness is developing with them and decide together what therapies are the right ones for them.
A New Generation of Doctors
The demand for physicians who carry out experimental research has increased over the past few years. “Medicine is becoming increasingly complex. For example, there is a much greater focus on the molecular properties of a disease than was the case just a few years ago,” says Georg Lenz. “For doctors, it is becoming more and more important to gain experience in laboratory work,” he says. However, few junior physicians choose this path. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the structure of doctors’ work. In most cases, doctors have more than enough to do in their everyday work at the hospital. An additional critical factor is the lack of training possibilities for medical students in basic research.
To provide specialized training in experimental research parallel to the curricular medical studies the Medical Faculty of the University of Münster recently instigated a master degree in Experimental Medicine. CiM’s focus on scientific excellence and clinical translation has been the important force behind the establishment of this new master degree, which was accredited in April 2016. The course will train students of human medicine for biomedical research in the spirit of the CiM philosophy.
Georg Lenz is convinced that “the course will fascinate young physicians and provide motivation for them to undertake translational work.” It is something that Prof. Rupert Hallmann is convinced of too, the instigator and coordinator of the master degree and a member of the Cluster of Excellence. “This is unique in Germany – that medical students can undergo clinical training in a recognized course of study and, at the same time, be introduced to basic experimental sciences,” he says.
“What we want to do is to train specialists who speak not only the language of natural sciences but also that of medicine,” explains Rupert Hallmann, regarding the programme’s primary objective. One focus is hands-on training in experiments and working on research questions in the laboratory setting. The basic research training begins early in the students’ undergraduate education, with a Junior Class lasting six semesters that runs parallel to the classical degree of human medicine, and is a prerequisite for the master programme. By providing the strong research environment in which the undergraduates are trained, and increasing possibilities for clinical translation research, CiM has been instrumental in this important structural change in the Medical Faculty of the University of Münster.
Stefanie Bobe is one of the students who was selected for the programme. After her final secondary school examinations (Abitur), the 21-year-old had to choose between studying human medicine or chemistry, and in the end chose medicine. When she heard about the new degree course in a lecture, she was immediately interested and, based on academic strengths, was selected into the first cohort of Junior Class students. After two semesters, she has gained experience in using different types of microscopes, learned a lot about tissue analysis by immunofluorescence microscopy, as well as why such analyses are important. “The results of the work were incredibly interesting and are really cool to look at,” she says. What she finds especially fascinating are the biomedical topics. “I’ll approach future questions with a very different view of things.”
Employers for Stefanie Bobe and her fellow students will include not only university hospitals and research institutions, but also industrial companies undertaking biomedical research. “We are sure that there will be a great demand for our master graduates,” says Prof. Ulrich Mußhoff from the Institute of Medical Education at the University of Münster. Together with Rupert Hallmann and biologist Dr. Sarah Eligehausen, Ulrich Mußhoff forms the team coordinating the course. They also follow the students to ensure that they manage the demanding task of carrying out two degree courses at the same time.
“The coordinators try to keep the organization of our study plan to a minimum,” says Stefanie Bobe who, among other things, sings in a number of choirs in her spare time. “I haven’t had to give up any of my hobbies,” she says. Once Stefanie Bobe has her master’s degree, she will be qualified to do a PhD in natural sciences, for example within a Graduate School. She has not yet decided which path to take but her next objective is a semester abroad. One thing is certain, she definitely wants to do clinical work and research at the same time.