Andreas Lendlein is the Director of the Institute of Biomaterial Science of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht at Teltow and Professor of Materials in the Life Sciences at the University of Potsdam and Professor of Chemistry at the Freie Universität Berlin. He is the spokesperson of the Helmholtz cross-program activity “Regenerative Medicine and Active Biomaterials” in the research area “Health” and a member of the Directors' Board of the Berlin-Brandenburg Center for Regenerative Therapies (abbreviated BCRT). He studied chemistry at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz and received his doctorate from ETH Zurich.
A few years ago one could already just marvel at what you were researching. Because it's a bit like magic. You have developed threads that sew themselves after they have been inserted into a wound. The correct scientific term for those threads is shape-memory polymers. What are those?
Shape-memory polymers are plastics that can change their shape by “remembering” what their programmed form used to be. Thus it is possible to shape the polymers at a certain temperature; after cooling down they remain in this so-called temporary form. They keep this form until they are reheated, which brings back their initial, permanent form. In order for this effect to take place, the polymer has to consist of various components, network points and switching segments.
Are the threads already being used in hospitals?
Our ultimate goal is to use the results of our basic research and find real-life clinical applications for them. In this regard it is particularly challenging to find a new, degradable material that would provide the basis for an entirely new kind of implants. It is difficult to develop such a product and to then have it approved for clinical use. This is why it takes so long to develop it.
One major field of research with regard to the possible applications of polymers focuses on their use in the medical field for implants that are being placed in the body and remain there and also for implants that dissolve over time, is that so?
Implants are an example of the use of biomaterials in the medical field. The degradability of polymers plays an important role in this regard. We are researching how the degradation process of plastics can be deliberately altered and controlled. In bone defects, for example, degradable implants can serve as a guide rail for a certain period of time during the formation of new bone tissue; subsequently they would simply disappear from the body. Biomaterials can also be used in many other ways, e.g. as carriers of active ingredients or as materials that come into contact with bodily fluids outside the body, such as membranes during dialyses.
What are you currently researching?
The challenges in the field of biomaterial development are very diverse. At present an important area of research focuses on, for example, making materials multifunctional. This means that certain features such as stimulus sensitivity, degradability or the controlled release of an active ingredient could also be combined and tailored specifically to individual medical applications. Stimuli-sensitive polymers are polymers that react to changes in their environment: they change, for example, their shape, their permeability or their colour based on a stimulus. A yet unsolved issue in this regard concerns the search for stimuli other than heat. Another important goal consists of developing a better understanding of the interactions between materials and their biological environment. At our Helmholtz Virtual Institute “Multifunctional Biomaterials for Medicine” we research the interactions between the body's own proteins and biomaterials in cooperation with the Freie Universität Berlin and the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin.
You are a member of the Directors' Board of the Berlin-Brandenburg Center for Regenerative Therapies (BCRT), your institute forms part of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht (HZG); additionally you are also responsible for the healthcare network HealthCapital, which means that you have many connections. How important is it to have many connections?
In complex and interdisciplinary fields of research, such as regenerative medicine, networking and intense collaborations are particularly important. This also holds true for cooperation in various research projects, in training and in “translating” the results of basic research and thereby making them available to clinical use. At our “Clinical Translational Center” – the Berlin-Brandenburg Center for Regenerative Therapies Berlin-Brandenburg (abbreviated BCRT) – which we operate jointly with Berlin’s university hospital Charité and the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht, we want to accelerate the “translational” processes through interdisciplinary cooperation.
In addition to its technology and product development activities, the Berlin-Brandenburg Center for Regenerative Therapies also addresses economic aspects and approval requirements and supports individual research projects, e.g. via targeted market analyses. Health initiatives in Berlin-Brandenburg also contribute to the creation of networks. Among those networks ranks the healthcare network of Berlin-Brandenburg, HealthCapital, which organizes activities, workshops and other events in order to support the progressive implementation of the “Master Plan for the Berlin-Brandenburg Healthcare Region”.
Cooperation is also very important in the area of education as it ensures that all the participants from the different academic disciplines speak the same language. In addition to the graduate school BSRT (Berlin-Brandenburg School for Regenerative Therapies) the new Helmholtz Graduate School for Macromolecular Bioscience will officially be launched here in January of 2013. In cooperation with the Freie Universität Berlin and the University of Potsdam we will use the graduate school to offer structured training programmes for doctoral students.
What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of your location?
First of all, we benefit from our long science-focused history here at our research location Teltow-Seehof. Here, cooperation between the field of science and the business sector has a long tradition. Surely another advantage is the large number of universities and research institutions covering different academic disciplines. In addition, the healthcare industry in our region is particularly strong. And not to forget the attractive location of Berlin – a great place for recruiting highly-qualified staff members.
Why are you here in Teltow?
Teltow – a place with a rich tradition – is particularly interesting, because one of the first institutes in Germany to focus exclusively on polymer research was founded here in 1920 by Vereinigte Glanzstoff Fabriken (abbreviated VGF). Ever since, polymer research has been carried out here, and even at that time the focus was on bringing theory and real-life applications in the fields of chemistry, physics and polymer technology closer together under one roof. Back then, pilot plants with small-scale productions were already being set up in order to allow the associated companies to benefit from the insights gained from basic research. In addition to that and also already back then, apprenticeships and vocational trainings were a top priority.
Thanks to our location in the southwest of Berlin, we are not far away from the new airport as well as from important research institutes, such as the Freie Universität Berlin, the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und -prüfung (abbreviated BAM) and the Helmholtz Centre Berlin at Wannsee.
What are your personal and what are the scientific challenges here?
Most of the plastics that are being used in the medical field today were not developed specifically for medical purposes, but were developed as polymers for industrial applications. These materials cannot, or can only partially, meet the complex, specific requirements of biomedical applications. That is why we are researching new, multifunctional biomaterials that open up greater and, in some cases, completely new medical opportunities through tailor-made properties and features for the respective medical applications.
What is your vision for the future of the institute? For this technology location?
The vision for the Teltow-Seehof Campus is to bring the fields of science and economy closer together. That is why I promote the idea of bringing more companies from our technological fields to the Campus itself and to the region.