Customizing Cancer Treatments

Germany’s single-cell biotechnology sector is transforming cancer treatments by shining a light on the genetic activity of individual cells. It’s also advancing our understanding of how our immune defences respond to Covid-19.

May 2022

The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) in Berlin is one of the many research institutions around Germany that is fighting the good fight against humanity’s deadliest diseases. And one of the scientists on the frontline is PhD student Matthias Jürgen Schmitt, who was honored last year for his contribution to cancer research by the Berlin Cancer Society. He used single-cell analysis to investigate why glioblastoma – the deadliest brain tumor of all – becomes resistant to treatments.

“We were able to see that there are many different cell types at different stages, and that a one-size-fits-all treatment is not possible,” explained Schmitt, a researcher from MDC’s Molecular Oncology lab, in a press release.

As the name suggests, single-cell sequencing (SCS) is a branch of biology that focuses on individual cells, a technique that yields different results from research conducted on cells en masse or biopsies of entire tumors. It allows doctors to monitor patient health by using sophisticated biochemical readings from blood and other tissues. These so-called biomarkers help clinicians detect diseases at an early stage, make accurate diagnoses and chart the progress of treatments.

Research in the field is booming in Germany – which accounts for more than 10 percent of all publications relating to single-cell technology. And that’s good news for sufferers of everything from cancer to Covid.

The Bottom Line

Single-cell analysis is one of the most exciting areas of recent biomedical research and something of a German specialty. International companies are taking advantage of Germany’s expertise and access to Europe’s largest healthcare market.

No more one-size-fits-all

The relatively young field of single-cell genomics has seen a number of advances in recent years. The journal Nature Methods selected SCS as Method of the Year in 2013; and in 2018, ­Science chose single-cell analyses of gene activity over time as its 2018 Breakthrough of the Year.

Along with the MDC, the Fraunhofer Institute for Toxicology and Experimental Medicine and the Berlin Institute of Health at the Charité (BIH) are active players in the field in Germany, as are companies such as Darmstadt-based Merck, QIAGEN in Hilden, CeGaT in Tübingen and Jena-based ALS Automated Lab Solutions.

Merck and QIAGEN are active in the development of liquid biopsies, which are transforming cancer diagnostics and treatments. Instead of using tissue samples, liquid biopsies test blood for cancer cells or DNA particles from tumor cells.

“We are moving away from the era of chemotherapy where everybody gets the standard treatment and some will benefit, but the majority will not, while still experiencing its side effects,” says Professor Ilhan Celik MD, senior program lead of global clinical development at Merck. “With liquid biopsies, we also can analyze hundreds of molecular biomarkers within a single patient sample – each one a potential signal that can help answer important questions.”

Not just for cancer

The benefits of single-cell analysis aren’t restricted to cancer. It has also become essential to our understanding of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, in particular why children’s immune systems are better at limiting the effects of Covid-19 than adults’.

In a highly respected recent study, researchers at the BIH and the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) used single-cell sequencing to examine nearly 270,000 cells from 42 children and 44 adults. Their findings could help protect adults against the virus.

“If we could generate the immune response already present in children in a controlled manner in adults, this would provide increased protection against coronavirus,” says Professor Irina Lehmann of the BIH. “We are already thinking about how this could be done.”

Researchers are looking at the possible development of a nasal spray that could stimulate the immune system in the nose, she adds. Another area in the field of single-cell research that has also become crucial in understanding Covid-19 is “omics” – an emerging multi-disciplinary and rapidly evolving field. Multi-omics research collects and combines data on several molecular levels.

The German Covid-19 Omics Initiative (DeCOI) is a national network founded in 2020 that involves scientists from more than 40 universities, organizations and research institutions using omics data based on next-generation sequencing in Covid-19 research. SCS is providing promising insights into the complex processes that take place in the bodies of people infected with the virus and contributing to the development of new treatment possibilities.

“A completely new dimension“

The economic potential of single-cell technology in the field of biology and medicine is plain to see. Germany is Europe’s largest healthcare market, and around 500,000 people in the country develop malignant tumors every year.

Foreign companies are taking notice. The Chinese firm Singleron Biotechnologies recently established a new lab in Cologne in addition to its facilities in China and North America. The fast-growing company develops high-throughput single-cell multi-omics platform products with a focus on clinical applications. Singleron currently provides products and services to about 300 hospitals, research institutes and pharmaceutical companies.

“Single-cell analysis has brought a completely new dimension to research, diagnosis, and treatment of human diseases,” says CEO and cofounder Nan Fang. “Complex diseases such as cancer and immune system disorders can only be accurately deciphered if measured at single-cell resolution. At Singleron, we are focused on developing single-cell analysis products and solutions for clinical applications.”

With its new German location, Singleron is aiming to establish partnerships in Europe and promote its services and products. One of those new partners is the laboratory for Translational Molecular Pathology at the University Hospital Cologne, which recently collaborated with Singleron on single-cell sequencing of advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

“We receive many inquiries about biotechnology in Germany, especially in regard to personalized medicine and oncology,” confirms Marcus Schmidt, director of Chemicals and Health at Germany Trade & Invest. “We are happy to assist international companies interested in expanding their R&D activities in this field.”

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