Protecting and repairing neurons

She wants to uncover the mechanisms behind inflammatory neurodegenerative diseases, while also developing new therapeutic approaches and testing them in clinical trials. With these goals in mind, Frederike Cosima Oertel is launching the Translational Neuroimmunology Lab at the ECRC.

Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin has been a fixed point in the life of Junior Professor Frederike Cosima Oertel. She was born there, she studied medicine there, and she will complete her residency in neurology there. And currently the scientist is setting up the new Translational Neuroimmunology Lab at the Experimental and Clinical Research Center (ECRC), a joint institution of Charité and the Max Delbrück Center.

“I’m interested in why neurons die and how we can prevent that,” says Oertel. Right from the beginning of her studies, she knew she wanted to pursue neuroscience research. She quickly specialized in inflammatory diseases of the nervous system like multiple sclerosis (MS) and neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorders (NMOSDs), which produce symptoms similar to MS. She did her PhD on imaging of the visual system in inflammatory neurodegenerative diseases at Charité’s NeuroCure Cluster of Excellence.

Oertel then spent four years as a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Ari Green at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), in one of the world’s largest neuroimmunology research centers. There she investigated disease mechanisms in MS. Using multimodal imaging of the visual system in a mouse model, she was able demonstrate, among other things, the role of certain immune cells called microglia. During a disease flare-up, microglia in the retina will sometimes have a toxic inflammatory effect, but at other times can act in a protective, anti-inflammatory manner.

Her goal: new MS therapeutics and diagnostics

What drives Oertel is the desire to discover how to prevent neuronal degradation: “I want to figure out how we can protect neurons in the first place while repairing neurons that have been damaged – and not just stop inflammation with drugs.” She also wants to develop methods to help doctors make a quicker diagnosis of inflammatory neurodegenerative diseases. “The faster treatment begins, the fewer neurons are damaged. Because how well we function depends on how many neurons we have.”

Text: Jana Ehrhardt-Joswig