Strategic Communication and Public Relations

Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and major diseases at the same time: A balancing act for biomedical scientists

No. 30c | 14/05/2020

Researchers, politicians and funding bodies find themselves in front of a unique situation and enormous challenge: The mounting pressure to accelerate and intensify efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic while handling the growing threat from all other diseases endangering our society. This balancing and how well the scientific community will respond to it will define health across the globe for years to come, argue scientists at Helmholtz Zentrum München and Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum (DKFZ) in the latest issue of the leading journal Cell. In their commentary, the researchers discuss how to strike a good balance between maintaining and redefining research priorities.

© Helmholtz Zentrum München/Charlie Padgett

The world is currently facing a global pandemic without precedence. Looking at how leading research organizations and scientists across all disciplines are actively redeploying efforts to help identify and implement solution is encouraging and exciting to observe, the authors of the commentary say. "This does not mean, however, that we may lose sight of the challenges we are already facing and which are responsible for threatening the lives and quality of lives of billions of people. Delaying or putting at risk decades of intensive basic, translational and clinical research would be a risky course of action which may end up having the opposite effect," warns Prof. Matthias Tschöp, CEO at Helmholtz Zentrum München. "It is the duty of the research community to face the total of all current and future threats in a responsible and sustainable manner. We need to adjust the way we work together and take our learnings from the corona pandemic."

The threat of major diseases is growing
The commentary refers in particular to chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, which remain leading causes of death and disability. For example, type 2 diabetes affects more than 400 million people worldwide today, and the closely correlated cardiovascular diseases remain the main cause of death in Western societies. Similarly, the number of newly-diagnosed cancer patients will increase annually from 18 million today to approximately 30 million in the year 2040.

Opportunities must be taken
According to the authors, the COVID-19 crisis has already changed the research community. Some of these changes and adaptations can be used to improve how we deal with other health challenges. International research teams are working together rather than in competition – across organization, disciplines and borders. Regulatory bodies have accelerated their processing and the sharing of critical data has been faster than ever.

"Based on what we have learned during the current COVID-19 crisis, smart, lasting, balanced and joint investments in improving our health as one global society are warranted. Ideally, all areas of biomedical research should benefit from this shift and be careful not to take a step back on our journey to prevent and eradicate many of the largest health threats worldwide," says Prof. Eleftheria Zeggini, Director of the Institute for Translational Genomics at Helmholtz Zentrum München.

Original publication
Zeggini et al., 2020: Biomedical Research Goes Viral: Dangers and Opportunities. Cell, DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2020.05.014

The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) with its more than 3,000 employees is the largest biomedical research institution in Germany. More than 1,300 scientists at the DKFZ investigate how cancer develops, identify cancer risk factors and search for new strategies to prevent people from developing cancer. They are developing new methods to diagnose tumors more precisely and treat cancer patients more successfully. The DKFZ's Cancer Information Service (KID) provides patients, interested citizens and experts with individual answers to all questions on cancer.

Jointly with partners from the university hospitals, the DKFZ operates the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) in Heidelberg and Dresden, and the Hopp Children's Tumour Center KiTZ in Heidelberg. In the German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK), one of the six German Centers for Health Research, the DKFZ maintains translational centers at seven university partner locations. NCT and DKTK sites combine excellent university medicine with the high-profile research of the DKFZ. They contribute to the endeavor of transferring promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improving the chances of cancer patients.

The DKFZ is 90 percent financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and 10 percent by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers.

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