You may remember playing the paper game “Heads, Bodies and Legs” (one of its many names) as a child. Players take turn drawing the various parts of a person or creature, and the final result might be a bat in boots, say, or a fish with clawed feet. The 20 doctoral students from around the world who took part in the “e:Med Summer School 2022 – Single-cell based systems medicine” in Berlin in early June put pencil to paper and came up with precisely these kinds of fantastic beasts. The aim of the exercise was to demonstrate the importance of interdisciplinary exchange: without communication among scientists in different fields, all kinds of mistakes might emerge – such as a mouse with wings and six limbs, for instance.
In order to host a truly interdisciplinary Summer School, the two main organizers, Dr. Chiara Baccin from the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) and Dr. Simon Haas from the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH), Charité - Universitätsmedizin and MDC, worked closely together. They were supported by the Professors Nikolaus Rajewsky and Angelika Eggert. The five-day event was hosted by the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology (BIMSB) and funding was provided by the e:med program of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).
The Summer School is one of the first events to combine single-cell technology with systems medicine. Single-cell technologies have now advanced to the stage where they not only provide a snapshot of individual cells, but also enable researchers to study the temporal and spatial characteristics of molecular changes within the cells. Despite the great significance of those changes – some of them are responsible for the onset of various diseases – single-cell approaches have not yet been properly integrated into clinical practice. This is primarily due to a lack of resources and of technical know-how, in data analysis, for instance. The Summer School hopes to encourage interdisciplinary interaction among the next generation of researchers and thus promote clinical implementation of single-cell research and technologies.
Conversation with the experts
The Summer School had more than 150 applicants. The 20 doctoral students who were ultimately selected came from Canada, India, and many other countries, with the three disciplines biology, medicine, and data science being roughly equally represented. The goal of the event was to pool valuable resources and build bridges between disciplines, thus equipping talented young scientists for a career in cell-based medicine. BIMSB’s director Rajewsky, believes this is the best way to realize the great potential of single-cell technologies: “These techniques can help us diagnose disease more quickly, develop new drug targets, and enable personalized treatment options.”
Eggert adds: “We are offering the young scientists a combination of lectures, interactive courses, practical exercises and panel discussions. The primary focus will be on how single-cell technologies can be used to drive clinical research forward.”
The practical workshops at the beginning of the week were tailored to the participants’ varying levels of experience. While “Single-cell transcriptome analysis 101” conveyed the basics, more experienced participants were able to explore advanced multi-omics techniques. During the workshops, the PhD students were encouraged to step outside their comfort zones. For instance, data scientist Mireille Ngokingha Tschouto held a pipette for the first time in her life!
High-ranking scientists were also invited along to provide additional insight into various topics in single-cells systems medicine. The keynote address at the symposium on Thursday was given by Prof. Bart De Strooper, a leading expert in neurodegenerative disease research at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research. Other researchers from Germany and abroad also attended. De Strooper stated that spatial transcriptomics is the best way to truly understand bodily organs. He believes new technologies are opening up tremendous opportunities for researching the molecular mechanisms behind the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, for instance.
Anyone who pays a summer visit to the MDC/BIMSB in Mitte is almost bound to end up on the research building’s roof terrace at one time or other. Everyone knows it’s a great place to network in relaxed surroundings, and so of course a rooftop barbecue and drinks get-together was organized for the course participants. Adria Dalmau Gasull, who is writing his doctorate in the field of neuropathy, was particularly pleased to talk with Alina Bollhagen of the University of Zurich, as his project uses a data science model that was developed by Bollhagen’s research group.
As the e:Med Summer School came to a close, the organizers were pleased with the success of the event. “Alongside the many experts, we invited 20 inspiring and talented young scientists to Berlin. They were able to exchange views and learn from one another,” said Haas. Baccin adds: “I hope that all of them found these five days as exciting as I did.” Another Summer School is set to take place next year at the MDC/BIMSB in Mitte.
Text: Christina Anders