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MINT400 Forum at the MDC: Why math is an indispensable tool

Basic medical research would be impossible without math and chemistry. At this year's MINT400 Forum, 350 schoolchildren and 50 teachers from all over Germany came together to learn about the importance of interdisciplinary research for science today.

“When do we ever need math in ‘real’ life?” This is a question that Daniela Schneider, a teacher at the Dientzenhofer Gymnasium in Bamberg, hears quite often. Thanks to the opening MINT400 lecture, delivered by MDC researcher Professor Jana Wolf, she now has a new answer for her pupils: Mathematical models can also be used to represent complex intracellular signaling cascades between proteins. And this is a key element in current cancer research – for which mathematics is an indispensable tool.

The schoolchildren who attended the event at the MDC on February 22 and 23 now know exactly how useful and important excellent qualifications in MINT subjects like mathematics or chemistry can be. MINT400 is an annual event run by the nationwide school excellence network MINT-EC – an association of almost 300 German schools that place particular value on the promotion of scientific knowledge. At this year’s event, organized jointly with the MDC, participating pupils learned more about how this knowledge can be practically applied.

Mathematically modeling signaling pathways in tumors

Professor Jana Wolf, head of the MDC research group on Mathematical Modeling of Cellular Processes, took the example of current cancer research for her lecture to explain why mathematical models are so useful. Cells in a tumor go through up to 100 mutations, which can affect all cellular processes – such as metabolism, gene expression, and cell division.

Group leader Jana Wolf of the MDC talks about mathematical models at the Forum MINT400

Most of these processes interact via numerous signaling pathways. “These signaling pathways are highly nonlinear, and in order to describe and analyze them we need complex mathematical models,” explained Wolf. “These models enable us to identify exactly where a specific signaling pathway in the tumor cell is being disrupted.” Once identified, the disruptions can be targeted with inhibitors. The researcher ended her lecture with a look to the future: “We want to use personalized therapies to help people – this approach could treat cancer much more effectively than conventional chemotherapy, which causes damage to all of the body’s cells.”

How do “gene scissors" work?

The MINT400 Forum also addresses practical training and career questions. Following the opening lecture, schoolchildren had the chance to inform themselves about study opportunities and training courses with 28 exhibitors that included businesses and universities. Afterwards, several expert lectures provided information on current areas of research and application. MDC scientist Tristan Wirtz spoke before an audience of well over 100 schoolchildren and teachers about the CRISPR-Cas9 gene scissors, explaining how they work and what they can be used for. Tristan Wirtz works as a PhD student in Klaus Rajewsky’s research group and uses CRISPR-Cas9 technology every day in the lab. The young biologist is particularly interested in Perforin-1, a protein that, if defective, results in the development of a rare blood disease known as FHL. Using CRISPR-Cas9, he can insert the missing gene sequence at exactly the right place in the DNA of the affected cell. The idea is that, once in place, Perforin-1 should be able to resume its task – namely, initiating cell death. “This blood disorder may be rare, but it offers us the chance to employ CRISPR-Cas9 with pinpoint accuracy,” explained Wirtz. “We hope that the insight we gain from this work will help us cure other diseases in the future.”

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