Translate! Congress

Opening Speech by Georg Schütte, State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Berlin

Dr. Georg Schütte, Staatssekretär im Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung
Dr. Georg Schütte, Staatssekretär im Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung © Denzel, Jesco / BPA

Check against delivery.

Professor Wess,
Professor Pries,
Dr. Frisk,
Professor Duda,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be able to speak to you here today. I recall very vividly the intensive exchange of ideas two years ago at the first Translate Congress on the topic of “Joining forces for translational research in the life sciences”. Translation has played an important role in the Federal Government’s research and funding policy for many years now – as demonstrated not least by the Federal Government’s High-Tech Strategy.

This second Translate Congress is devoted to the question of how to shape translational health research in the face of increasing global competition for the brightest minds. It is taking up a topic that the German Research Ministry has been considering intensively for some time now. Of course, there is no easy answer to this question, which is multifaceted and complex. However, I am convinced that successful translation is not feasible without excellent science, without both excellent cutting-edge established researchers and up-and-coming, young researchers and without top quality research results.

The prevailing conditions in Germany are good and with its excellent basic and clinical research sector Germany has the potential to assume a leading role in international translational health research. The 2016 Federal Report on Research and Innovation, which the Federal Cabinet adopted on 11 May, endorses this positive appraisal. According to the Report, Germany need not fear international comparison:

  • Germany accounts for 30 percent of all R&D expenditure in the European Union.
  • Five of the ten most innovative companies in Europe come from Germany; Germany is thus a heavyweight when it comes to research and development in the EU.
  • Germany is also one of the leaders in the field of innovations worldwide. This is demonstrated, for example, by the new record level of excellent scientific publications: One in six German scientific publications is listed among the works that are cited most frequently internationally.
  • Germany was able to increase its exports of research-intensive goods and now once again holds second place – behind China and ahead of the United States.

It is essential to consider future trends and challenges if we are to maintain our strong competitive position in the long term. After all, these are the factors which determine the global competition for the brightest minds. We are currently facing a whole range of such challenges and trends in the life sciences:

  1. Progress in the life sciences is strongly characterised by new technologies which enable entirely new insights into biological systems and into the emergence of diseases. Biomedical research is increasingly dependent on access to the latest generation of equipment to be internationally competitive.
  2. New or improved procedures are producing ever larger quantities of data. This data needs to be organized, standardized, prepared for structural analyses and tests and made accessible. At the same time, data protection measures must be adapted to keep pace with technological developments.
  3. Technological capabilities and scientific expertise, on the one hand, and medical knowledge, on the other, must be systematically linked in order to ensure that research findings find their way to the patient as quickly as possible.
  4. Research results as a whole must be more reliable and more reproducible and their effects must be better understood. Research must meet high standards of quality at all stages of the translation chain in order to ultimately ensure the faster and improved transfer of results from the laboratory to medical application.
  5. Preclinical and clinical research must be better linked and coordinated with a view to improving the exploitation of research results. The academic sector is being forced more and more to conduct early clinical trials itself. Industry is showing too little interest in this early phase of development due to the considerable financial risks involved. However, it is decisively important for the translation chain that the results gained from using model systems in laboratories are tested in clinical trials. Experience shows that academia alone cannot provide the necessary resources, expertise and infrastructures.

One thing is undeniable: These challenges can only be tackled in a close exchange and in close association with all the stakeholders involved. Together we must frame the conditions which will enable Germany to continue to play a major role in translational health research in future. The Federal Government has adopted concrete measures to put Germany in an even better position as a research hub and to develop solutions for the problems that I have just described. Let me mention the following points by way of example:

  1. The establishment of the Health Research Forum last November was an important step to showcase the potential of biomedical research in Germany. The Forum brings together for the first time responsible representatives from all large research organizations working in the field of health research. From my point of view, an important factor in founding the Forum was the increasing societal need to improve the availability of research results to benefit people. The Forum will deal with the topic of translation on a systematic, inter-organizational and continuous basis – in the same way as other topics too. A second working group dealing with the “Added Value Chain”, which will meet for the first time on 1 June, is intended to point out obstacles at the interfaces between science and industry, identify drivers of innovation and obstacles to innovation and draw up solutions and strategies for implementation. This working group will also pick up the discussion that was begun as part of the Federal Government’s “Pharma Dialogue”. It will initially focus on the topics of the validity and quality of biomedical research and the phase between preclinical development and early clinical trials, the so-called “proof of concept” phase.

The first working group established within the Health Research Forum, the working group on “Infrastructures in the Life Sciences”, will draft recommendations for a national strategy for the future development and expansion of equipment infrastructures in biomedical research.

  1. The Federal Research Ministry announced the Medical Informatics funding scheme in November 2015. The scheme is intended to help to improve research and patient care through the introduction of innovative IT solutions and to make use of data from research and the care sector across institutions. This will optimize the environment for the faster and improved transfer of research findings to clinical application.
  2. The Federal Research Ministry expects international quality standards to be observed when it funds projects such as clinical trials. In future, the Ministry will attach even greater significance to the quality of scientific research as an important criterion in the context of utilizing research results. Coordination between all stakeholders is needed to improve the quality of research accordingly.
  3. In order to promote translation effectively, academia and the health industry should consider in how far they can pool strengths by applying the open innovation approach and can conduct joint research and development activities for the benefit of patients. There are cases in other countries where even rival pharmaceutical companies practise the open innovation approach in the early phases of development.

A further fundamental precondition for efficient and competitive translational health research in Germany is the long-term security of funding and of the structures created.

For years now, the German Government has been providing considerable funding for basic biomedical research and has at the same time supplied strategic impulses for new innovative structures to ensure long-term, successful translational research in Germany. This commitment on the part of the Federal Government has led in particular to the establishment of the German Centres for Health Research, the Berlin Institute of Health and the Integrated Research and Treatment Centres. I should like to briefly describe these institutions in more detail.

The establishment of the German Centres for Health Research in 2009 and their continued expansion is a game-changing process which demands a regular comparison between what the Centres have actually achieved and their original targets in order to remain on the path to success. To ensure this success, the Federal Government has firmly anchored the continued development of the German Centres for Health Research as a task in the Coalition Agreement. The individual centres are currently undergoing an evaluation phase, which is due to be completed shortly. So far, the panels of experts have given a very positive feedback on the development of the individual Centres and on the progress to date in the area of translational research. The Centres have established excellent and highly productive groups of researchers. They have set up coherent, well-structured, cooperative networks of scientists from all over Germany. The Centres can serve as role models for other states in many disease areas. The expert panels have, however, also made valuable suggestions to both the Centres themselves and to the German Research Ministry as to how the Centres can perform their tasks even more efficiently in the future. Let me quote the following examples:

  • In future, research should be aimed more strongly and more strategically towards the needs of translation.
  • Clinical needs should be addressed more clearly.
  • Scientific quality assurance should be improved by involving external expertise.
  • Cooperation with industry should be encouraged more.
  • As far as support for young researchers is concerned, greater significance should be attached to clinical aspects and more clinical staff should be involved.
  • Patient involvement should be intensified.

Following the individual evaluations of the Centres, an overarching assessment will need to consider what action is required for the continued development of the concept of German Centres for Health Research. The Federal Research Ministry has asked the German Council of Science and Humanities to draw up corresponding recommendations by mid-2017.

The Berlin Institute of Health, like the German Centres for Health Research, represents an entirely new approach in the field of life sciences research. The Charité Medical School in Berlin and the Helmholtz Association’s Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine have been pooling their strengths under the joint roof of the Berlin Institute of Health since 2013. The idea is to pursue translational research by adopting the interdisciplinary and cross-indication approach of precision medicine. This innovative concept is intended to close the gap between basic research and clinical application.

The Federal Research Ministry's project funding is also helping to systematically improve the conditions for translational health research. For example, the Research Ministry has been funding a total of eight Integrated Research and Treatment Centres in Germany since 2008. The aim of this structural funding measure is to establish and test a new organizational structure which can act as a model for medical schools. The main focus is on cutting-edge clinical research with a view to strengthening Germany’s position in this field and making it competitive. Apart from creating an attractive environment for patient-oriented translational research, the scheme’s career promotion programmes for young clinical researchers provide an important contribution to achieving the stated aims.

As a member of an increasingly international health research scene, Germany is also providing an important impetus for successful translation in the field of Global Health.

German translational research can play an important role in international cooperation schemes to tap the potential for improving the global transfer of research results to medical practice.

A special effort is required to ensure successful translation activities in the field of Global Health. As a rule, the fight against poverty-related diseases does not offer industry the prospect of high profits. Products must be adapted for use under the conditions prevailing in developing countries, and it is almost impossible to predict the occurrence of pandemics.

New R&D instruments – such as product development partnerships – are strengthening both international cooperation as well as cooperation between academic research and industrial development. Initial successes are prompting the Research Ministry to increase funding for these initiatives in future.

By tackling the challenges I have just mentioned through a joint interdisciplinary and inter-institutional exchange, we will be able to establish Germany as a centre of excellent translational health research. This is the precondition for recruiting and retaining experienced scientists as well as talented up-and-coming scientists from all over the world. I am convinced that the rounds of discussions and talks at the Translate Congress will make an important contribution to this goal.

I wish you all the best and every success for this event.

Thank you!