The Smallest Things Arrive in a Big Way

Scientists at Freie Universität are creating the tiniest of all worlds: they are developing nano-structures, the basis of new materials for medicine and electronics

Dec 19, 2013

In the past, science was often very lonely work. Nowadays real teamwork is required. When chemistry professor Rainer Haag wants to test whether his nanotransporter, which is invisible to the human eye, is really transferring active medical ingredients into the lower layers of the human skin, he depends on the support of colleagues working in pharmacy and physics.

Physics professor Stephanie Reich, for example, can use spectroscopy and what are known as near-infrared waves to make single carbon nanotubes visible, to test whether Rainer Haag’s nanotransporter is working.

“The Focus Area NanoScale has broken down the barriers between our disciplines,” as Stephanie Reich puts it, and Haag adds, “It is fascinating to see the number of research projects where we are already adopting a multi-disciplinary approach.” There are now five of these research Focus Areas at Freie Universität in which scientists are working across the borders of their disciplines.

The Focus Area NanoScale was set up in 2008, one year after Freie Universität was commended for its future strategy in the context of the German government’s Excellence Initiative. The idea at that point was to establish several Focus Areas as platforms for the development of research ideas, where interdisciplinary projects could be initiated. “We were the first group of institutes within Freie Universität which joined together in a Focus Area,” states Rainer Haag with some pride. NanoScale now has almost 120 members, and many young scientists and over 50 cooperative projects have received support from the new platform’s funding so far. This concentration of fundamental scientific research, where biologists, pharmacists, veterinarians, computer specialists, physicists, medical scientists, and mathematicians work closely together, is unique in Germany. Stephanie Reich, who is the Focus Area’s spokesperson and responsible for much of the coordination work, states that “by 2015, a total of around four million euros will have been invested in our associative research projects.”

The scientists’ work is concentrated in four research fields. In Nanomedicine, they are looking for medically useful nanomaterials such as arrangements of molecules in which medication which is not easily water-soluble or which has severe side-effects can be carried directly to the part of the body where a disease originates in order to develop its effect there.

The second field, Hybrid Systems, investigates innovative combinations of various molecules and nanoparticles. These nanomaterials change their properties when their size or shape is altered. For example, semi-conductor nanoparticles shine in different colors when stimulated, depending on their size. Traditional substances do not usually have such properties. The third subject of fundamental research in this Focus Area is Biomembranes, naturally occurring membranes which seal off cells against their environment. Precisely how all the molecular processes function, including transport through the membranes, is not yet fully understood. The scientists hope to gain a better understanding of these processes as a basis for developing new pharmacological approaches.

Finally, in the research field Supramolecular Interaction, scientists are gaining insights into the function and interaction of macromolecules. Macromolecules are particularly large molecules made up of several hundred thousand components. They include the nucleic acids, i.e., biomolecules such as DANN and RNA, the carriers of living creatures’ genetic information.

In all four research fields, scientists from Freie Universität are working closely with colleagues from Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, the joint medical school of Humboldt-Universität and Freie Universität. They also collaborate with institutes belonging to the Max Planck and Fraunhofer societies, the Research Institute for Molecular Pharmacology, and with institutes of the Helmholtz Association.

The Berlin-based researchers have also built up a wide international network of excellent contacts. In 2010, for example, a partnership between Freie Universität, Harvard University, and the University of Tokyo was set up. NanoScale also collaborates with Delhi University and McGill University in Montreal.

One special feature of the Focus Area is financial support for the rising generation of scientists, which is to be increased in the future. “As scientists, we value the freedom to carry out research – and NanoScale enables this freedom to unfold across the institutes,” says Rainer Haag. “As project managers, we give the impetus for research directions in the selection of visiting scientists and at joint events. But our scientists are entirely free to decide which direction their research will take.”

To preserve this independence in the future, the scientists in the Focus Area are making efforts to secure long-term funding. Spokesperson Reich states, “In the last few years we have set up good working structures. Now we are developing ideas for the long-term funding of these structures – and we are confident that we will find satisfactory solutions for the future.”

Physics professor Stephanie Reich, for example, can use spectroscopy and what are known as near-infrared waves to make single carbon nanotubes visible, to test whether Rainer Haag’s nanotransporter is working.
“The Focus Area NanoScale has broken down the barriers between our disciplines,” as Stephanie Reich puts it, and Haag adds, “It is fascinating to see the number of research projects where we are already adopting a multi-disciplinary approach.” There are now five of these research Focus Areas at Freie Universität in which scientists are working across the borders of their disciplines.
The Focus Area NanoScale was set up in 2008, one year after Freie Universität was commended for its future strategy in the context of the German government’s Excellence Initiative. The idea at that point was to establish several Focus Areas as platforms for the development of research ideas, where interdisciplinary projects could be initiated. “We were the first group of institutes within Freie Universität which joined together in a Focus Area,” states Rainer Haag with some pride. NanoScale now has almost 120 members, and many young scientists and over 50 cooperative projects have received support from the new platform’s funding so far. This concentration of fundamental scientific research, where biologists, pharmacists, veterinarians, computer specialists, physicists, medical scientists, and mathematicians work closely together, is unique in Germany. Stephanie Reich, who is the Focus Area’s spokesperson and responsible for much of the coordination work, states that “by 2015, a total of around four million euros will have been invested in our associative research projects.”
The scientists’ work is concentrated in four research fields. In Nanomedicine, they are looking for medically useful nanomaterials such as arrangements of molecules in which medication which is not easily water-soluble or which has severe side-effects can be carried directly to the part of the body where a disease originates in order to develop its effect there.
The second field, Hybrid Systems, investigates innovative combinations of various molecules and nanoparticles. These nanomaterials change their properties when their size or shape is altered. For example, semi-conductor nanoparticles shine in different colors when stimulated, depending on their size. Traditional substances do not usually have such properties. The third subject of fundamental research in this Focus Area is Biomembranes, naturally occurring membranes which seal off cells against their environment. Precisely how all the molecular processes function, including transport through the membranes, is not yet fully understood. The scientists hope to gain a better understanding of these processes as a basis for developing new pharmacological approaches.
Finally, in the research field Supramolecular Interaction, scientists are gaining insights into the function and interaction of macromolecules. Macromolecules are particularly large molecules made up of several hundred thousand components. They include the nucleic acids, i.e., biomolecules such as DANN and RNA, the carriers of living creatures’ genetic information.
In all four research fields, scientists from Freie Universität are working closely with colleagues from Charité  – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, the joint medical school of Humboldt-Universität and Freie Universität. They also collaborate with institutes belonging to the Max Planck and Fraunhofer societies, the Research Institute for Molecular Pharmacology, and with institutes of the Helmholtz Association.
The Berlin-based researchers have also built up a wide international network of excellent contacts. In 2010, for example, a partnership between Freie Universität, Harvard University, and the University of Tokyo was set up. NanoScale also collaborates with Delhi University and McGill University in Montreal.
One special feature of the Focus Area is financial support for the rising generation of scientists, which is to be increased in the future. “As scientists, we value the freedom to carry out research – and NanoScale enables this freedom to unfold across the institutes,”  says Rainer Haag. “As project managers, we give the impetus for research directions in the selection of visiting scientists and at joint events. But our scientists are entirely free to decide which direction their research will take.”
To preserve this independence in the future, the scientists in the Focus Area are making efforts to secure long-term funding. Spokesperson Reich states, “In the last few years we have set up good working structures. Now we are developing ideas for the long-term funding of these structures – and we are confident that we will find satisfactory solutions for the future.”