An outstanding example of interdisciplinary cooperation between different research areas at Furtwangen University is work being carried out on the so-called "blood-brain barrier". The Institute of Technical Medicine and the Institute for Microsystems Engineering have combined their expertise for this purpose, or, as Professor Dr Margareta Müller, whose laboratory is located in the Faculty of Medical and Life Sciences, jokingly comments about herself and her colleague Professor Dr Ulrich Mescheder from the Faculty of Mechanical and Medical Engineering, "We are a combination of hardcore biology and real engineering!"
Blood-brain barrier complicates drug research
The basis for the research is easy enough to understand, even for a lay person. "It's about drugs and which parts of the body they affect. Substances are transported through the body via the bloodstream, but some of these you really don't want in the brain," Prof. Müller describes vividly. To prevent unwanted substances from working their way into the brain from the bloodstream in the head, the human body has a natural physiological protection – a compacted barrier between the vessel and the surrounding tissue, the so-called "blood-brain barrier." "This is probably an evolutionary advantage," Müller reflects, "to prevent toxic substances from passing directly into the central nervous system." However, some drugs should and must reach the brain, for example to combat epilepsy or tumours there – so they must be able to overcome this barrier.
Prior to coming to Furtwangen University Professor Müller conducted research at the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg. The biologist moved to HFU to collaborate with specialists from a wide range of other disciplines. "Cancer research usually involves animal cells." she reports. However, at HFU human cells are mainly used. "This is good because ultimately animal cells always differ a little from human cells," Müller says. So researchers must come up with innovative methods of testing how drugs can be guided through the brains of patients. To do so, complex cell and tissue models as well as microfluidic systems are used.
Model systems as the solution
The model of the blood-brain barrier which Professor Mescheder and his engineers are working on consists of a wafer-thin scaffold (made of glass!) which will be both permeable and impermeable at the same time. Professor Müller and her team are responsible for the cells which will colonise it, as well as for the appropriate nutrient solutions and hydrogels. The artificial blood-brain barrier is looking very promising. As in the human body, "impermeability" can be measured by changes in electrical resistance when substances are passed through the various channels of the barrier system. The research will likely continue for several more years, estimates Professor Müller, who is currently focusing on the challenge of the next step. "All we have to do now is convince the cells that they want to cooperate in the model in the way they should in order to replicate the barrier exactly," she laughs.