Hermann von Helmholtz

The MDC as part of Helmholtz

Tackling science's great challenges together

The MDC is part of the largest national research community in Germany: the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres.

The mission of the Helmholtz Association’s members is to solve the “grand challenges facing society, science and industry.” For the MDC, as a Helmholtz Centre working in the field of health research, this mission translates primarily as: How will we best combat widespread chronic diseases in the future? This task brings the MDC into close strategic cooperation with the four other major institutions working in this field.

The Helmholtz Research Programmes

Biomedical research within the Helmholtz Association is organized into research programs. The MDC coordinates the Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases program and also makes important contributions to two other programs – the Cancer Research program (coordinated by the German Cancer Research Center, DKFZ, in Heidelberg) and the Disorders of the Nervous System program (coordinated by the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, DZNE, in Bonn).

MDC areas of focus for the 2014–2018 funding period

Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases


In this program, the MDC examines how the cardiovascular system and metabolic processes work and interact. Another objective of this research is to identify the processes that trigger diseases and learn how these processes can be corrected.

The cardiovascular system delivers oxygen, nutrients, and neurotransmitters such as hormones to all cells, organs, and parts of the body. Both genetic factors and personal lifestyle can interfere with the workings of the cardiovascular system. Metabolic diseases such as diabetes and obesity often occur as a result of underlying cardiovascular problems.

Cancer Research


Scientists working at the MDC focus on unlocking the molecular mechanisms that keep cells healthy and understanding how cancer manages to evade the body’s natural defenses.

A great many cellular defense mechanisms need to fail before cancer can develop. Then and only then do cancer cells begin to grow uncontrollably, stop reacting properly to signals from their environment, spread throughout the body, and form metastases.

Disorders of the Nervous System


How do the brain and the nervous system develop? How do they work and what changes do they undergo when they are affected by disease? Researchers at the MDC get to the very heart of the molecular mechanisms within neurons.

The human brain and nervous system are the most complex organs produced by evolution. Our neuroscientists research how skills like perception, learning, and memory emerge – and what happens during, for example, pain perception or the onset of Alzheimer’s.

NAKO – the German National Cohort

The German National Cohort (NAKO Gesundheitsstudie, or NAKO for short) is a joint interdisciplinary project being undertaken by the Helmholtz Health Centres. It involves the cooperation of university and non-university partners throughout Germany and a total of 200,000 study participants. Some 30,000 of these participants will undergo a one-hour MRI examination.

The MDC coordinates the study’s Berlin-Brandenburg Cluster, which comprises three study centers and 30,000 participants recruited from Berlin and the surrounding Brandenburg area. The MDC itself is studying 10,000 individuals and performing MRI examinations on 6,000 of these participants.

Overview of the Helmholtz Association

The Helmholtz Association is one of Germany’s four leading non-university research organizations, along with the Max Planck Society, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, and the Leibniz Association. Its namesake is the renowned German physician and physicist, Hermann von Helmholtz. Some 38,000 people are employed within the Helmholtz Association. The work carried out at the 18 autonomous Helmholtz Centers is organized into six research fields:

  • AeronauticsSpace and Transport
  • Earth and Environment
  • Energy
  • Matter
  • Key Technologies and
  • Health

The scientists working in the field of health research investigate the causes and development of widespread chronic diseases such as cancer; diseases of the cardiovascular system and the lungs; metabolic and infectious diseases; and disorders of the nervous system. This work involves numerous partnerships with universities, university hospitals, other research organizations, and industry.

Targeted funding for strategic research programs

How does the Helmholtz Association fund its research? Who determines the research topics and monitors research quality?

The members of the Helmholtz Association receive 90 percent of its roughly €4 billion base budget from the German federal government and ten percent from the state governments. Under the Pact for Research and Innovation, the federal and state governments of Germany have ensured planning dependability by promising a continuous increase in funding.

The research centers themselves receive a third of their budget from third-party funding sources, such as the German Research Foundation (DFG ), the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the European Union, and various other foundations or private donations.

Their core budget, however, comes via the Helmholtz Association’s system of program-oriented funding (POF). All Helmholtz research is organized into research programs that are reviewed every five years by renowned independent experts.