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Detlev Ganten: “No heartbeat should be wasted”

On March 28, 2016 Prof. Detlev Ganten, founding director of the MDC, celebrates his 75th birthday. Portrait of a forward-looking scientist
Detlev Ganten Photo: Detlev Ganten

Detlev Ganten still has a room at the MDC. This office for emeriti was arranged on his initiative when he was head of the institute. Ganten has now belonged to that venerable group for some time, and makes good use of the office himself. As founding director he still fulfils various functions for the institute, such as editing the Journal of Molecular Medicine.

The physician and highly experienced research manager with a range of distinguished posts has played a significant role in raising the MDC’s profile. In over a decade of service as MDC director, in Berlin-Buch Ganten forged a new institute for biomedical research from the old Academy institutes of the GDR. In particular he promoted the translation of basic research into clinical applications, technology transfer, and the commercial utilization of scientific findings. Ganten championed the development of an entire biotechnology campus in Berlin-Buch, which has become one of the most important biotechnology sites in Germany – with the MDC at its heart.

Ganten has also played a decisive role in the latest developments at the institute and in Berlin. In 2004 he took on the task of combining the university medical centers of East and West Berlin in the new Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, and he founded the Stiftung Charité foundation. This further improved the MDC’s collaboration with Charité Berlin. Then in 2013 the MDC joined forces with the Charité to form the Berlin Institute of Health. The BIH receives additional funding from Stiftung Charité to attract excellent researchers to the institute – and Ganten has been chairman of its Board of Trustees for over ten years. “The MDC has developed in a wonderful way,” says Ganten. “The quality and visibility of the research are better than ever, and the external funding budget has increased steadily. I’m delighted! I couldn’t have imagined anything better.”

Not everything has always gone according to plan. In Berlin you need stamina. Ganten finds inspiration in Karl Popper’s philosophy that there are no right and wrong answers. This has practical applications for him: he would never take any top-down decisions, as “this doesn’t work in science. Also, I was never sure whether I was right,” Ganten adds, with a smile. Instead, he relied on creative teamwork with the staff of the Academy institutes and newly appointed scientists, developing concepts in cooperation with his colleagues. “When you share enthusiasm for a common task, many things are possible, and tradition is an important inspiration for the future,” Ganten says.

Founding director Prof. Dr. Detlev Ganten (right) and former Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker at the opening ceremony of the MDC in 1992. Photo: MDC

His enthusiasm for large projects and ideas didn’t happen by chance. Again, he is following Popper, whom he knew personally and who believed that it is our duty to remain optimistic. “No heartbeat should be wasted” is Ganten’s firm conviction. “We must be patient, even when things don’t progress as fast as we might like.” This is certainly very true for a subject particularly close to Ganten’s heart at the moment: disease prevention. It is the key to better global health, a realization gleaned from scientific knowledge acquired over decades and his practical perspective as a physician. Ganten researches high blood pressure, and his work on the renin-angiotensin system in particular has helped to make a condition that affects half of all adults in Germany very easily treatable today. Also, as Ganten says, “you can prevent the disease really well with the right lifestyle – that is, a healthy diet and exercise.”

Making health prevention and a holistic understanding of medicine a higher priority is a central theme of Ganten’s recent publications and the World Health Summit, which he initiated in 2009 and has led as president ever since. “Health is an all-embracing subject. We can only improve global health if politics, business and civil society get involved” – that is his guiding principle. The summit, which will be held in Berlin in October 2016, will address the burning issues of global healthcare today. For example health security in the context of Ebola: How can we prevent entire countries being brought to a standstill by a disease? Other topics include climate change and health, refugee health, and empowering women to play a greater role in healthcare.

Ganten’s global commitments have never stopped him from getting involved locally, for example in the Society of Friends of the MDC and to support the reconstruction of the beautiful baroque church in Berlin-Buch. He remains devoted to developing Buch as “a place to experience the modern knowledge society,” which includes promoting business and civil society. In his early years at the MDC he had the fences around the site torn down, so every visitor would feel welcome. With their Art and Science project, Ganten and his wife Ursula, also a medic, had statues and sculptures installed in the grounds for passersby to enjoy. The broad corridors of the main building are brightened up with large paintings that are his permanent bequest to the MDC. So there is much more of Detlev Ganten at the MDC than just a single room – without him, the MDC would be a very different place.

MDC press release from March 22, 2016

Curriculum Vitae Prof. Dr. Detlev Ganten

Detlev Ganten was born in Lüneburg, Germany on March 28, 1941. He studied medicine in Würzburg, Montpellier, France and Tübingen. In 1973 he obtained the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) from McGill University in Montréal. From 1973 to 1991 Detlev Ganten worked for the Pharmacological Institute of the University of Heidelberg where he also qualified as a professor in 1974. In 1992, he was appointed Founding Director of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) in Berlin-Buch. The MDC emerged from the central institutions for cardiovascular research, cancer research and molecular biology of the Academy of Sciences of the GDR. He established the Berlin- Buch Biotechnologie (BBB) which grew into an independent biotechnology campus and, in alliance with the MDC as main shareholder, developed into one of the most important biotechnology parks in Germany.

From 2004 until 2008 Detlev Ganten was CEO of the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, one of Europe’s biggest university hospitals. The Charité emerged from the unification of the academic medicine of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (east) and the Freie Universität Berlin (west). In 2010, the Charité celebrated it’s 300th birthday.

Detlev Ganten acted in many boards and scientific organizations. From 1992 until 1997, he was member of the Scientific Committee of the Health Research Council and of the German Council of Science and Humanities (1993-1998). From 1993 until 2004, he was director of the Institute of Clinical Pharmacology, University Hospital Benjamin Franklin, and from 1997 until 2001 chairman of the Helmholtz Association. From 2002 until 2007, he was member in the German Ethics Council, from 1992 until 1998 president of the World Hypertension League, and from 1996 until 1998 president of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte (GDNÄ). Since 2005, Professor Ganten has been acting Chairman of the Foundation Board. Above that, he has been chairman in the joint board of trustees of the Max Planck Institutes of Colloids and Interfaces and of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam. Since 2009, he has been president of the World Health Summit.

Other memberships include: the Scientific Advisory Board of the Université Sorbonne Paris Cité (France, since 2011); the Board of Directors of the Université Paris Sciences et Lettres (France, since 2011) and the Scientific Advisory Board of the Einstein Foundation (since 2011). In 2013 he was elected co-chair of the Interacademy Medical Panel (IAMP).

Detlev Ganten has been the recipient of many international awards and prizes, among them the Max Planck Research Award (1990); the Okamoto Award, Japan (1990); the CIBA Award of the Council for High Blood Pressure Research of the American Heart Association (1992); the Federal Cross of Merit, Germany in 2000, and in 2003, the insignia of Officer of the Legion of Honor of the French Republic. Above that, he is member in the Berlin–Brandenburg Academy of Sciences (BBAW); the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences, the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, and the Polish Academy of Sciences.