What are the advantages of this collaborative partnership?
Prof. Mathias Pletz: Companies often do not have sufficient sample material from patients for their research and they also lack clinical expertise. In this case, they benefit from the Research Campus where we have set up a central patient cohort and a biobank.
Popp: As academic researchers, we frequently have access to advanced, sophisticated technologies that allow us to create excellent technical solutions in the laboratory. But then we run into problems because it is not so easy to translate these technologies into an actual product. Occasionally, it forces us to rethink and revise everything - with simpler resources that promote serial production. However, if academic researchers collaborate closely with industry partners right from the start, we tend to quickly identify the important aspects pertaining to product development and translation.
Pletz: Conversely, companies get to collaborate closely and at an earlier stage with physicians who use the new technologies, enabling the former to learn about user needs and requirements pertaining to a solution. Without this opportunity, product development may fail to address clinical needs or might simply be too expensive or too complicated to use in clinical practice.
Which medical device are you developing?
Pletz: Our theme for the next five years of funding focuses on pneumonia caused by a weakened immune system. We are researching non-invasive diagnostic tools for pneumonia pathogens using urine or blood samples. Currently, it is a very invasive process to examine the lungs in hospitals. A so-called bronchoalveolar lavage is a procedure in which a bronchoscope is passed through the mouth or nose into the lungs and fluid is squirted into a small part of the lung and then collected to examine for pathogens. This is a very stressful procedure for patients, who already have difficulty breathing. That’s why we are developing tests that forego this process, yet still facilitate a rapid, accurate pathogen-specific diagnosis.
Physicians urgently need advances in diagnostics. Rare, but dangerous pathogens can exploit a compromised immune system - for example in elderly or cancer patients - and cause severe cases of pneumonia. Without accurate pathogen detection, we might mistreat the patient and – in the worst case scenario - cause his/her death. Antibiotic resistance plays a major role here, because most patients have already been given different types of antibiotics over the course of their treatment. Although we are able to pinpoint some common, resistant bacteria like MRSA quite easily, it is far more difficult to identify certain enterobacter species (intestinal bacteria), especially since some of them have different resistance mechanisms.
Popp: One of the approaches we are turning into a product at the Campus pertains to phenotypic detection of antibiotic resistance in bacteria during a 3-hour window using Raman spectroscopy. We illuminate the bacteria with laser light - once without antibiotics and once with antibiotics in different concentrations - and analyze the backscattered light. This gives us a type of "molecular fingerprint" - characteristic fingerprinting patterns in the spectrum, which are analyzed using artificial intelligence and show whether an antibiotic is successful against the bacteria.