Scientists at the MDC are working to decipher molecular mechanisms in cells, organs and organ systems. Through their research they hope to gain an understanding of the processes and the molecular causes of disease and health in humans, to provide more targeted treatments and improve diagnosis and prevention.
The human body is extremely complex. To gain a detailed understanding of the processes involved in a disease, how a therapeutic substance works, and resolve many other questions of medical relevance, it is usually necessary to examine a whole, living body with its many tissues and organs. Since such experiments can't be performed directly on humans until safety is ensured as far as possible, animal experiments are usually the only alternative.
Biomedical research at the MDC focuses on a wide range of scientific questions. The methods and organisms that are used depend on the particular question under investigation: Scientists at the MCD work primarily with rodents – i.e. mice and rats – but also with zebrafish, frogs, fruit flies, flatworms and threadworms.
Transferability to humans
MDC scientists use mainly mice and rats for their research. The close evolutionary relationship between these animals and humans makes them highly valuable for research into human diseases.
Other species are also important in the institute's research, at lower numbers. While animals such as zebrafish or clawed frogs (Xenopus) bear less similarity to humans, they have other advantages for experimental work. They lay eggs, for example, making it much easier to study the way their embryos develop than in species where the early stages of life take place inside a mother's body.
Recent decades have seen the development of an important branch of research based on genetically modified animals. Nowadays the genes of mice, rats and zebrafish are easy to modify. Some of the animals used at the MDC contain altered genetic material with additional or “silenced” genes.
Such transgenic animals can be used as models to investigate a variety of diseases, for example by ascertaining the role that specific genes play in biology or a disease. If a gene is silenced in mice, and they develop diabetes or high blood pressure, this is an indication that the gene that has been modified may play a role in these conditions.
With the help of the mice, the causes and developments of diseases can be investigated and understood at a molecular level.
Such experiments can also contribute to the development of new drugs.