Rainy summer’s days in Heidelberg

In July fifteen EUSJA-journalists made visit to the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) in Heidelberg (Germany). The programme of the three-day-tour was highly […]

Heidelberg Study Trip ParticipantsIn July fifteen EUSJA-journalists made visit to the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) in Heidelberg (Germany). The programme of the three-day-tour was highly scientific, full of interesting lectures, mind-boggling movies and experiments – and a lot of unpublished data.

The EMBL’s Advanced Training Centre, which is situated on a wooded hill just outside Heidelberg, has an eye-catching architecture. The centre, which was opened in March 2010 and which houses the administrative part of the EMBL, looks a little bit like the Guggenheim Museum in New York – it also has a pathway on the inside wall that slowly spirals up. But after a closer look, you see that it’s definitely not a copy. This builing is totally unique. To emphasize the mission of the EMBL – basically to learn more about molecular biology – the pathway is designed as a double helix. Double helix… that rings a bell, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s the basic structure of DNA that is at the heart of this spectacular architectural achievement. And because there are two spiraling pathways – just like the two intertwined DNA strains – it’s possible to take two different paths to the top floor of the building. Luckily for the people working here, there are some interconnections between the pathways (the hydrogen bonds?) which offer an escape route just in case you’re on the wrong helix.

On Monday, scientists working at EMBL gave exciting lectures about their work. At the heart of these lectures were tough questions like ‘How unique is my own DNA?’, ‘What about personalized medicine?’ and ‘How long will it take before every cancer patient gets a personalized treatment?’. The scientists at EMBL sure know how to give a lecture without overwhelming their audience with to much numbers or data. In many cases a nice picture or even a movie is enough to grasp the attention of all the journalists. For example in a movie Darren Gilmour showed how groups of cells migrate by following a ‘leader cell’. Unfortunately there’s no link to this movie on Gilmour’s webpage on the EMBL site (somebody?).

Monday afternoon we got an insight in the labs of EMBL, where all the work – which was presented in such a nive way during the lectures – is done. Personally I find these laboratory tours rather unexciting: no more than a good opportunity to stretch the legs. I’v seen many biology and physics labs, and to me they look all more or less the same.

Day two. On Tuesday the bus took us downtown Heidelberg, to the – also – brand new building of the German Cancer Research Centre, or DKFZ (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum). Because health and cancer research is not in my specialization as a science journalist, I was very curious to this visit – as a layman. Again the programme of the day was fully packed with lectures, and once more these lectures were all very nicely presented and full of interesting ideas – and because the topic is cancer: full of hope. For example the parvoviruses which Jörg Schlehofer talked about – could they become a new wonder treatment for brain tumors? – or the involvement of stem cells in the growth of tumors (by Andreas Trumpp). This day was concluded with a visit to the National Centre for Tumor Diseases, where patients from all over Germany are treated and supported in a highly personalized way (instead of personalized medicine, they get personalized care).

Tuesday evening all the participating journalists, together with the scientists from EMBL and DKFZ, were invited to embark on a little boat named Germania (pronounce in a very loud and strict way). During this meet-the-scientists-session we sailed downstream the river Neckar, passing three of four enclosures. Luckily the weather was quite dry on that evening – so we could drink and eat on the back and front deck of the ship.

Wednesday morning the bus took us back to the EMBL, for three more lectures, now presented by pairs of scientists – one from the EMBL, the other from the DKFZ. It’s an interesting way of presenting things, because it shows clearly how very connected the fundamental research in molecular biology is with the rather practical attempt to improve cancer treatments in the hospital. Once more the lecturing scientists were very well-prepared for our visit. They had updated their slides and even showed us exciting and unpublished findings about cancer development, which unfortunately too us were ‘off the record’. But mentionning briefly that you’re actually presenting unpublished results, is a very cunning way to grasp your audience’s attention, certainly when you’re dealing with journalists.

Many thanks from EUSJA to the people of EMBL and DKFZ, who made this study/press trip possible. Special thanks to Lena Raditsch (Head of Communications & Public Realtions, EMBL) and to Stefanie Seltmann (Head of Press & Public Relations, DKFZ).

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