10th TWINCORE anniversary 2008-2018

Every year again...

Since 2008 TWINCORE sends Christmas cards, specially designed for us from Britta Freise. Enchanting motives, which are too good to be seen only once, we think. Therefore a retrospective view in Christmas cards...

Transitioning from the concept to the actual founding of the Infection Research Centre

Interview with the TWINCORE trailblazers

Starting with the first ideas through to comprehensive planning to foundation of the centre to the reputation of becoming a highly successful Institute for Infection Research, more than a decade had passed. Professor Dieter Bitter-Suermann, former President and Medical Director of the MHH, as well as Professor Rudi Balling, the former Scientific Managing Director of the HZI, and TWINCORE Managing Director Professor Ulrich Kalinke had a discussion about these beginnings.

Herr Balling, Herr Bitter-Suermann, you are considered to be the founding fathers of TWINCORE and designed the concept. How did you come up with the idea of founding this facility?

Rudi Balling: We’d have to take a look at the year 2000. The basis was of course the relation between the HZI, at that time still called the Society for Biotechnological Research, and the MHH. The idea that one could connect, within Lower Saxony, a university with a Helmholtz Centre to bring the advantages of basic research together with high-end medicine was something that we had already been talking about – and we were already doing serious collaboration at that point. What was missing was the focus – particularly in the form of a building.

How then did the idea actually evolve into this centre that we are sitting in right now?

Rudi Balling: That began during our drive together from Hanover to Berlin. Somewhere near Magdeburg, Dieter Bitter-Suermann mentioned that the building for the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Endocrinology was up for sale, and within three seconds the idea occurred to us both: Could that be something for us? That was the moment that the idea was born.

And now we are sitting in the former Max Planck building

Rudi Balling: Exactly; but that took a while…  In this context a series of fortunate circumstances plus cultivation of relations came together. I was originally with the Max Planck Society and there was no hesitation on my part to just get on the phone. The decision to make the sale then happened relatively quickly – after about two years. 

Dieter Bitter-Suermann: At HZI a lot of people shook their heads when they found out that MHH didn’t have any money and Rudi Balling said: In that case we’ll just buy – Helmholtz and the HZI – this building. And then of course a lot of difficulties came up involving the question of how a medical university could cooperate legally and watertight with a Helmholtz Institute. It took four more years until TWINCORE was finally founded.

In connection with that time, is there a particularly joyful event that stands out in your mind?

Dieter Bitter-Suermann: That was of course at the end of the successful merger. Rudi Balling, being as physically active as he is, had organized a tandem bike that represented a kind of symbol for our merger, and we took a lap of honor around the TWINCORE campus. That was the ceremonial opening of TWINCORE in August 2008 and at that moment Ulrich Kalinke took over as Managing Director of TWINCORE.

Rudi Balling: (laughs…)

Herr Kalinke, this sounds like a huge challenge: a discarded Max Planck building and two parent institutions. How were you able to tackle this?

Ulrich Kalinke: Oh yes… We had to undertake a massive conversion in the building. Today’s laundry rooms and animal facility used to consist of convoluted hallways; we were able to simplify work processes with these modifications. You can’t even recognize this area anymore. The ventilation system in the laboratories didn’t comply with modern expectations… But we were able to convert the entire construction in an amazing tempo. Today a lot of guests arrive and say: Now you’ve got a chic, beautiful, new building here!

But science consists of more than just modern labs and a fancy building. How has TWINCORE become what it is today?

Ulrich Kalinke: The initial projects that were established with other clinics were important, and that went quite well for us. The first “physician scientists” emerged from the collaboration between Thomas Pietschmann and Michael Manns, a concept that we then further developed together with many young doctors from a wide variety of disciplines. That was more or less the initial spark. The basic concept of the “Young Academy” also emerged from this time, which was later transformed into a funding instrument for young doctors with two medical and natural-science mentors. That promoted many new projects here. That then became the next developmental stage after a number of years.

Dieter Bitter-Suermann: When you’ve worked for so many years in science you learn that something like this doesn’t develop in only two or three years. As a member of the HZI scientific advisory board and the supervisory board, first with Jürgen Wehland and then with Rudi Balling, it took almost ten years to link HZI with MHH. Since the foundation of TWINCORE, another ten years have elapsed in order to bring, with the scientists, translation from basic research into medicine. These ten years were not all sunny days. It was a strenuous business to create the awareness that translation has a future in infection research.

Speaking of the future: What key areas do you foresee there, Herr Kalinke?

Ulrich Kalinke: The journey was strenuous for sure, but now we experience excellent interactions – even with large clinics. Now we are seeking to intensify these interactions and make them even more sustainable. We want to further develop our young “science stars” here at TWINCORE and focus even more on specific topics in the future. In this context, respiratory infections play a central role as well as gastro-intestinal infections, organ involvement such as liver diseases and, of course, vaccine research.

Herr Balling, Herr Bitter-Suermann, when you take a look back once again at your original ideas that emerged during the drive to Berlin, have you been able to realize your expectations for TWINCORE?

Dieter Bitter-Suermann: When I distance myself from the notion that something like this should occur at a more accelerated rate, then TWINCORE has in fact arrived at a point where my ideas have been entirely realized.

Rudi Balling: I even go farther than that: If we hadn’t founded TWINCORE, then the entire scientific region would not be in the prospering condition that it is in now. In this regard, both the cities of Hanover and Braunschweig as well as the state of Lower Saxony – all of us actually – can be proud. I think we did the right thing at the right time.