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Nr. 92, 21.10.2017  voriger  Übersicht  Übersicht

Interdisciplinary doctoral degrees

Innovative implants could be an alternative to high dosage medicines when treating brain disorders. Interdisciplinary specialists are needed to develop them, and they are trained at Kiel University.


PhD students Anna-Sophia Buschhoff and Igor Barg using an x-ray photoelectron spectroscope to chemically analyse materials, to find out which elements they consist of, for example. Foto: Julia Siekmann

Sudden spasms, twitching arms or momentary absences. The visible symptoms of epilepsy can vary. According to the World Health Organisation, WHO, around 50 million people worldwide suffer from over-activity of the brain, leading to situations when the nerve cells suddenly unload. About 70 percent of cases can be treated with medicines, but they often come with severe side effects.

“Our body uses protective mechanisms to prevent our blood from transporting the medicine in an uncontrolled manner into the brain,” says biologist Anna-Sophia Buschhoff. This important blood-brain barrier particularly becomes a problem in the case of brain disorders. “It means that these medicines often only reach the brain in low concentrations. Patients are therefore forced to increase the dosage, which in turn leads to stronger side effects.” Together with her colleague Igor Barg, Buschhoff is researching the potentials of a localised therapy directly in the brain, which does not affect the whole body. “The objective is for medicines to only act where they are supposed to,” says Barg.

The biologist specialising in neurosciences and the materials scientist are preparing their doctoral theses at the “Materials for Brain” research training group in Kiel. Scientists from the fields of medicine, biology and materials science work together to research how brain disorders like epilepsy, aneurysms or brain tumours can be treated more effectively with the help of intelligent, biocompatible materials. Complex tasks that require close interdisciplinary collaboration.

“We will see a significant increase in the demand for specifically trained scientists, both in Germany and worldwide. The interdisciplinary training programme in our research training group is closing a gap here,” says Christine Sellhuber-Unkel, Professor of Biocompatible Nanomaterials at Kiel University and spokesperson for the research training group.

Obtaining their doctoral degree in this way also presented an attractive option for Anna-Sophia Buschhoff and Igor Barg. Buschhoff came to Kiel from Freiburg and is now writing her doctoral thesis in the neurobiology research group of Professor Peer Wulff at the Institute of Physiology. Barg had already studied materials science at Kiel University and is writing his dissertation with Professor Franz Faupel in the Multicomponent Materials working group at the Institute for Materials Science.

They will work in a close tandem over the next three years to develop an implant with a sensor, which measures brain activity directly in the head, thus receiving much better signals than an external EEG. In their research project, the two PhD students are concentrating on so-called absence epilepsy, which is most common in children. Absence seizures are like staring spells during which the child is not responsive to external stimuli. “This can be very dangerous in everyday life, for example on the roads,” Barg explains. Their dream would be to develop an implant that automatically releases the medicine as soon as an epileptic seizure begins – or that would even predict it.

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Many questions have yet to be answered, however, before this could actually happen one day. How exactly are medicines distributed in the brain, for example, where and how long can an implant be inserted and what material is suitable for this purpose? And to answer these questions they need one another’s specialist knowledge. Materials scientist Barg: “We can only develop a biocompatible material if we know the conditions in the human body. The material must either be bioresorbable by the body, for instance, or completely resistant.” The PhD students from the research training group meet every two weeks to present the current status of their project and discuss how they can support each other with their own expertise. “We complement each other and show each other what’s possible – and also what isn’t,” says Buschhoff. “Your own work is never complete without the work of the other.”

Julia Siekmann
Research Training Group "Materials for Brain"
Interdisciplinary and international are the two key words that define the doctoral education at the “Materials for Brain” research training group in Kiel. A total of 12 doctoral researchers are supervised by one member each from the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Medicine, go to seminars together and take part in interdisciplinary coaching programmes. Preparation for a scientific career also includes a stay abroad and organising a symposium for an international conference. The research training group started on 1 April 2017 and is being funded by the German Research Foundation. (jus)
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