Innovative projects in the life sciences

Nasal microbiome in Alzheimer's disease, advanced retinal organoids: transdisciplinary projects at the University of Bonn honored

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Researchers of the Transdisciplinary Research Area "Life and Health" have been awarded the internal research prize for their creative and innovative approaches. One of the two teams is formed by biotechnologist Prof. Dr. Volker Busskamp and immunologist Prof. Dr. Elvira Mass. Photo: Volker Lannert/Uni Bonn

Research across disciplinary boundaries: the Transdisciplinary Research Unit "Life and Health" at the University of Bonn has rewarded some of its members with its bi-annual internal research prize. For their creative and innovative approaches, the project teams, which involve up to three researchers working together receive start-up funding of 50,000 euros each. They come from the disciplines of biology, biotechnology, nutritional sciences and medicine.

No scientific discipline alone can answer major societal challenges and the complex questions associated with them. This idea prompted the University of Bonn two and a half years ago to establish six university-wide Transdisciplinary Research Areas (TRA) with different thematic focuses as part of its funding for excellence.

This is the second time that the TRA "Life and Health" has awarded its research prizes for particularly innovative ideas. "The winning projects reflect the strong potentials for innovation within our research area. Researchers from a variety of disciplines contribute their expertise to jointly investigate biomedical questions whose answers can have a lasting effect on society," emphasizes Prof. Waldemar Kolanus, one of the two speakers of the Transdisciplinary Research Area "Life and Health".

The selected projects

Organoids of the human retina

What mechanisms underlie retinal diseases? To answer this question, biotechnologist Prof. Dr. Volker Busskamp and immunologist Prof. Dr. Elvira Mass develop so-called retinal organoids in their joint project. These are small pieces of retinal tissue that are generated in a dish from stem cells mimicking organs. Thereby, complex mechanisms such as the interaction of cells in health and disease can be studied. This gained knowledge primes the development of innovative therapies. However, to date, retinal organoids lack a vascular system and do not contain immune cells such as microglia, which are the resident macrophages of the brain. Because such organoids correspond to embryonic tissue and at one point are growth limited, they are not suitable for mimicking age-related diseases such as age-related macular degeneration.

To this end, the two researchers are now joining forces and bring their expertise together. Volker Busskamp specializes in stem cell technology to study retinal degeneration, while Elvira Mass is an expert in immunology, especially macrophages, which include microglia. The team aims to generate endothelial and microglial cells from human stem cells within growing retinal organoids to overcome insufficient nutrient and oxygen supply to inner tissue parts and clearing of apoptotic cells. The researchers are confident that if the approach works, it can not only advance the generation of human retinal organoids, but also help develop other vascularized organoids models including immune cells.

The LIMES Institute (Life and Medical Sciences) of the University of Bonn and the Eye Clinic of the University Hospital Bonn are involved in the project.

How are the nasal microbiome and Alzheimer's disease related?

The nasal microbiome and Alzheimer's disease - this hitherto poorly explored relationship want to investigate nutritional scientist Jun.-Prof. Marie-Christine Simon, psychiatrist Prof. Dr. Anja Schneider and neuropsychologist Prof. Dr. Michael Wagner. Since the nose is anatomically closely connected to the brain via the olfactory nerve, the nasal microbiome, i.e., the totality of bacteria inside the nose, could have an influence on brain function, similar to the gut microbiome, which is connected to the brain via the gut-brain axis.

There are already indications of this: researchers have found, for example, that the symptomatic onset of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease can be preceded by a disturbed sense of smell. In Alzheimer's, moreover, the region of the brain that receives direct input from the olfactory bulb is the first affected region to show a change in the so-called tau protein - and these changes are crucial for the onset of the disease. To date, however, there have been no studies in humans to determine whether molecular changes in the nasal microbiome and associated inflammation contribute to the development and progression of Alzheimer's disease. To determine possible links, the transdisciplinary research team now aims to study the nasal microbiome in Alzheimer's patients (in early and manifest stages) and in healthy controls.

The Institute of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Bonn and the Clinic for Neurodegenerative Diseases and Gerontopsychiatry at the University Hospital Bonn are involved in the project.

Dr. Meike Brömer
Manager Transdisciplinary Research Area "Life and Health”
Phone: +49 151 16933013