"The German Centres for Health Research: A Contribution to Effective Translational Medicine"

Opening Speech by Dr Georg Schütte, State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, at the 1st DZHK Conference on Translational Medicine, Langenbeck-Virchow-Haus, Berlin

Check against delivery

Professor Eschenhagen,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very happy to be able to speak to you at today's conference. I still remember with pleasure my visit here in 2012, when I represented the Federal Ministry of Education and Research at the opening of the German Centre for Cardiovascular Research.

The Centre's first international conference on translational medicine today is proof of its notable achievements over the past five years. This conference enables us to look ahead to the next phase of development of both the German Centre for Cardiovascular Research and all the German Centres for Health Research.

Over many years, the German Federal Government has provided considerable funding for basic biomedical research. Such research is indispensable for generating findings with the potential for human application. But basic research alone will not enable patients to benefit from better treatment, diagnosis or preventive measures. Laboratory findings need to be brought into medical practice and clinical application. This process of translation, as we call it, must work in both directions.

The translation of research results into human applications is a long and expensive process. As you all know, this means that we have to overcome many hurdles and address numerous challenges. The Federal Government therefore launched its Health Research Framework Programme in 2010 in order to provide strategic impetus for combatting major diseases by means of long-term translational research in Germany.

The German Centres for Health Research are a major focus of this initiative which aims to promote new and innovative structures.

In order to get an idea of what these Centres are about, we need to understand what translation means. Different definitions of translational research can be found in relevant literature. But the common understanding is that translation means the process of bringing findings from basic research into clinical application to enable improvements in healthcare. We can distinguish two major interfaces of translational research. The first one is between research in the lab and clinical research.

The second one refers to the practical implementation of findings in healthcare. After these theoretical considerations, let us now take a look at research practice in other countries. The U.S.A. is a world leader in translational research. From November 20 to 23, 2016, I had an opportunity to travel to there together with several leading researchers and visit numerous world-class institutes in Boston, Philadelphia and New York. As a representative of the German Federal Research Ministry, my conclusion from this interesting visit is that German health research can certainly be considered to hold competitive potential following the establishment of the German Centres for Health Research. The intensive talks produced some good ideas for further steps in Germany. The digitalization and analysis of data is a major trend in US health research.

Germany has a lot of ground to make up in this respect. Further key fields include entrepreneurship, visionary objectives, interdisciplinary approaches, networking across research infrastructures and IT projects as well as professional private fund-raising.

Against this background, the German Centres for Health Research are called upon to determine what they understand by translational research in view of their own possibilities and conditions. The Centres should pave the way for a generally accepted, precise definition that is suited for practical purposes and, what is more, introduce scientifically and clinically tested practical concepts of translation. It is only with such a definition in place that specific objectives and strategies can be discussed and established.

Political and scientific efforts are mutually beneficial in the context of translational research. The German Centres for Health Research therefore represent the main pillars of the Federal Government's policy to promote successful translational research. These are:

Firstly: Translation will only work when all the players in the value chain cooperate across institutions. Quick and effective translation is not compatible with self-serving and compartmentalized thinking. Medical schools have a special responsibility in this context. They are natural places for translation because they work with patients.

Secondly: Translation requires interdisciplinary cooperation between excellent researchers. This includes cooperation between medical schools and between university and non-university researchers. Continuous support must be given to early-career researchers who must be prepared for their special tasks in translational research.

Thirdly: Effective translation requires adequate resources. It is important to ensure that the limited resources available, for example for the procurement and use of scientific infrastructure, are employed as efficiently as possible. Suitable incentives must be provided for joint activities in areas such as biobanking, IT and clinical trials. A working group of the Health Research Forum, which my Ministry initiated, is currently drafting relevant recommendations for the Federal Government.

Fourthly: Translation can only be successful if academic and clinical researchers as well as industry are brought together and work hand in hand. In this context, it is vital to ensure that the results of academic research can be taken up directly by industry.

Fifthly: Competitive translational research in Germany is only possible if we take advantage of digitalization. Researchers must be able to use patient data while observing the relevant ethical and data protection requirements. Efforts must be made to ensure the systematic storage, analysis and accessibility of the enormous amounts of scientific data in accordance with uniform standards.

Sixthly: Good translational research must also be recognized by the scientific community itself, particularly in the advanced phases of development. The number of scientific publications, for example, cannot be the sole criterion for success. This aspect must be actively addressed by the major science and research organizations. Specific indicators must be developed and applied to identify and highlight progress in translation.

A great deal has been achieved with the establishment of the German Centres for Health Research since 2009. But we must not rest on our laurels. A commitment to the science-led development of the Centres was included in the present Government's Coalition Agreement. As a result, the scientific work and strategy of the individual Centres was evaluated by international panels of renowned experts by May last year. The experts provided valuable advice for enhancing the Centres' capability to fulfil their mission. Let me mention a few points:

  • Future research should focus even more strongly and strategically on translation.
  • Even greater emphasis should be placed on clinical needs.
  • External expertise should be involved to improve scientific quality assurance.
  • Cooperation with industry should be strengthened.
  • Career advancement measures for young researchers should increasingly focus on clinical aspects and even more clinical staff should be involved.
  • The involvement of patient groups should be intensified.
  • Efforts should be made to further increase international visibility.

The experts' recommendations should encourage the German Centres for Health Research to continue to sharpen their profile. What can and must be the Centres' contribution to the overall process of translation? What can be done to ensure that the Centres' own activities will be followed up by industry?

Obviously, translation faces a number of challenges. Let me mention the following in particular:

  1. In order to be internationally competitive, biomedical research needs increasing access to the latest generation of equipment.
  2. Ever larger volumes of data are being generated. This data must be organized, standardized, prepared and made accessible for structured analysis and study.
  3. Technological potential and scientific expertise must be systematically combined with medical knowledge.
  4. Research results must become more robust and reproducible and their impact must be better understood. Research must meet high quality standards at all levels of the translation process.
  5. The coordination of pre-clinical and clinical research must be further improved in order to enhance the applicability of research results. Scientific institutions are increasingly forced to carry out early clinical trials themselves. Industry all too often decides not to engage in such research because of its high economic risk.

The experience which has been gained since the establishment of the German Centres for Health Research between 2009 and 2012 and the recommendations issued by experts can contribute to solving these challenges. It is now time to focus greater attention on the overall development of the Centres.

The German Council of Science and Humanities has been mandated by the Federal Government to review the overall approach of the German Centres for Health Research and to draft recommendations for their further development by the middle of next year. Three lines of action are of particular importance from the German Government's viewpoint:

  1. The scientific and strategic development of the existing Centres – This includes the consideration of methods and processes to ensure the Centres' ability to develop with regard to new research topics and locations. Another question to be addressed is how to proceed when unsuccessful locations have to be abandoned.
  2. The structural and administrative development of the existing Centres – This includes a review of the existing funding models and available funding and the enhancement of governance in the German Centres for Health Research.
  3. Consideration of possibilities for establishing new Centres as a basis for political decision-making.

But the main point is the position which the Centres generally hold or will hold in German health research.

When the German Council of Science and Humanities has presented its recommendations, my Ministry will discuss concrete steps to implement the further development of the German Centres for Health Research.

Today's conference of the German Centre for Cardiovascular Research brings together basic researchers and clinicians and experts from funding organizations, regulatory authorities and industry. The discussions will include the views and experience of different countries. The conference can provide valuable impetus for the development of the German Centres for Health Research.

I congratulate the German Centre for Cardiovascular Research on the organization of such an event and wish all participants good and productive presentations and discussions.

Thank you.