Everything begins with a mountain of data. Whether in environmental and materials research or in medical diagnostics – when it comes to imaging, researchers always face the same challenge. They need to organize, reconstruct and evaluate the huge amount of data they have collected through microscopes, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or synchrotron radiation. The data must be converted, transferred to other storage formats and extensively processed. Only after several consecutive steps does something visual emerge – an image. The end of this long process chain, or “imaging pipeline,” as researchers call the cascade of measures leading to image evaluation, involves analyzing and interpreting the image and linking its visual information with physical, physiological and other parameters. This is how environmental researchers measure air pollution in cities and doctors detect tumors in the brain.
The task of the newly founded Helmholtz Imaging Platform, coordinated by a network of three research centers from the Helmholtz Association, is to jointly exploit this wealth of data. With Helmholtz Imaging, the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC), the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) are pooling their imaging expertise and making it available to all Helmholtz Centers. Each of the three partner institutes will focus on individual sub-steps of the imaging process according to its competencies. “Together, we cover the complete imaging pipeline, with all its scientific challenges. In so doing, we promote imaging sciences beyond the boundaries of our own research fields,” says Professor Thoralf Niendorf from the MDC. He is one of the three Helmholtz Imaging coordinators, along with Dr. Klaus Maier-Hein from DKFZ and Professor Christian Schroer from DESY. The three centers will receive a total of €3.3 million in grants annually, of which nearly €760,000 will go to the MDC. Some €1.5 million of the annual funding is earmarked for Helmholtz Imaging projects for which all Helmholtz Association members and its cooperation partners can apply. The Assembly of Members of the Helmholtz Association has approved this sum for an initial three-year period.
One imaging toolbox for all
This year, the MDC, DKFZ and DESY are appointing new senior and junior research groups to advance the fields of imaging and data science. The focus of the new MDC research group is the development of concepts and algorithms to merge and utilize largely heterogeneous image data from different research fields. In addition to scientific work, Helmholtz Imaging will set up a help desk that researchers can contact with specific questions pertaining to imaging. This underscores Helmholtz Imaging’s strong network character, says Niendorf. “All research fields can benefit from the platform, and it increases the international competitiveness of the Helmholtz Association as a whole.”
However, Niendorf is convinced that the Helmholtz Imaging projects themselves are the special strength of the platform. About half of the budget has been allocated to these, and researchers from any Helmholtz Center are eligible to apply. In cooperation with a discipline outside the individual subject area, scientists can implement entirely new ideas that very few have dared to approach before. One possible Helmholtz Imaging project, for example, would be a collaboration between researchers from medical diagnostics for cardiovascular diseases and colleagues from energy research or materials science: “When imaging ions in a living organism, magnetic resonance tomography repeatedly pushes us to our limits in terms of sensitivity and resolution,” says Niendorf. Instead of using radio waves, researchers in Professor Klaus Lips’ team at the Helmholtz Center Berlin for Materials and Energy (HZB) work with microwaves to investigate the radical density of test objects or surfaces using electron spin resonance (ESR). Niendorf now asks: “What results can be expected if we at the MDC were to measure, for example, a sodium or potassium signal in the skin or in a beating heart with the help of ESR? Would this lead to new ways of non-destructive, in vivo quantification of the ion concentration that could serve as a diagnostic tool for cardiovascular or metabolic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes?
The platform will be launched in March with a network meeting at DKFZ in Heidelberg. In early January, an independent supervisory body with members from eight Helmholtz institutes was established to evaluate Helmholtz Imaging project applications. In the second half of the year, the MDC, DKFZ and DESY will fill the scientific staff positions.