“You couldn't imagine the moon landing either,” smiles Professor Dr. Antje Baeumner, “and it was possible.” SciFiMEd is a visionary endeavor, and this is evident not only in its name: within the next four years, the international research project aims to develop a biosensor that will help to better characterize inflammatory reactions in the body. Science fiction? Certainly not. The project combines fundamental immunological research with novel nanomaterial-based biosensor development translated into proof-of-principle diagnostics.
In the SciFiMed project, experts from chemistry, genetics, immunology, nephrology, and ophthalmology are collaborating in order to develop a biosensor for characterizing inflammatory reactions. Besides Regensburg, experts from universities in Marburg, Madrid, and Budapest, as well as biotechnology enterprises and health institutions in Germany and the Netherlands, are involved in the project. The international and multidisciplinary team not only works to advance immunological research, but also pursues the goal of enabling new treatment options and novel approaches for drug development.
At least eight PhD students and postdocs will have the possibility to work with work-package leader Antje Baeumner, Head of the Chair for Analytical Chemistry, Chemo- and Biosensors at the University of Regensburg. She is excited about sharing her unique expertise in the field of liposomes with early-career scientists from completely different areas. By imparting her knowledge in SciFiMed, she considers she has “the chance to make a difference.” Early-career researchers will benefit hugely from the chance to switch back and forth between different working groups and laboratories, as well as between academic and industrial environments.
The project partners, who were brought together by Professor Dr. Diana Pauly, cooperated closely with each other to write a research proposal to the European Commission that was successful in the first round and provided them with 3.5 million euros for their common objective. The fact that they know each other and their respective research was a key ingredient of this success.
Project coordinator Diana Pauly, now conducting research at the University of Marburg, was previously a research scientist at UR, where she started own lab at University Hospital Regensburg, investigating the role of the complement system. Mark-Steven Steiner obtained his PhD in chemistry at UR and is now the director of contract manufacturing at a biotechnology company based near Munich. Further investigators and work-package leaders on the project do research and teach at UR’s partner universities Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and Complutense University in Madrid.
In the foreseeable future, SciFiMed findings will improve diagnosis and therapy for very different diseases. Among them is macular degeneration, an eye disease that affects around 15 million elderly people across Europe. Those patients could greatly benefit from SciFiMed. Almost half of them lose large parts of their field of vision in the course of the disease. So far, the disease is only partially curable, as are certain chronic kidney infections and particular forms of bacterial infection. Common to all these diseases is a faulty regulation of the so-called complement system, a component of the innate immune system. At the moment, researchers still know little about the role the complement system plays in the development process of all these pathologies—too little to be able to effectively prevent, diagnose, or treat these diseases.
According to the current state of research, the complement factor H and related proteins play a decisive role in the development of systemic and organ-specific diseases. The functioning of factor H has been well researched, but that of the proteins related to it is largely unknown—as is their influence on the various disease-specific pathogenic mechanisms. SciFiMed investigators and their teams will investigate the influence that proteins related to the complement factor H have on the development of diseases.
“Biosensors based on nanovesicles will play a central role in order to be able to determine the functional activity of the proteins,” explains Antje Baeumner. The research results will then flow into the development of a multiplex detection system, with the help of which patient samples can be examined simultaneously for the functional activity and quantity of all seven members of the protein family under investigation. This newly developed diagnostic technology should in future be available to general practitioners or in hospitals.
The SciFiMed project began its work in February 2021. It is funded by the European Commission and consists of eight work packages led by a team of four female and four male investigators. It seeks to:
- modernize the EU diagnostic market,
- provide new perspectives for patient treatment,
- pave the way for novel approaches for drug development.
The project involves collaboration with scientific communities such as:
Meanwhile, the first PhD students have joined the SciFiMed team around Antje Baeumner at UR. She previously worked at Cornell University, where she still is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Engineering: “Working in another laboratory broadens the research horizon. You get to know new perspectives and approaches.”
The cosmopolitan professor, herself having a dual cultural background, encourages young researchers to pursue an international career even during the pandemic: “We follow strict hygiene rules in our labs,” says the chemist, “and we use the whole range of social media when communicating among project partners, from Zoom via Instagram to ResearchGate.” Further benefits? Early-career scientists will get an idea of what collaboration with companies is about and what to expect in an industrial environment.