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3 August 2005

Sophisticated Computer Models Assist in Precise Prediction of Radiation Damage

Issue 2/2005 of the University of Heidelberg's research magazine "Ruperto Carola" now out — Gregor Kreth and Christoph Cremer describe computer models working on the basis of new cell-biological discoveries — Articles on theoretical astrophysics, environmental geochemistry and molecular biotechnology round off the range of subjects — Also: An introduction to the first German Centre for Modelling and Simulation in the Biosciences

The fact that radiation and other so-called mutagenic agents can cause cancer by changing the genetic make-up of cells has been known for some time. But how high does the dose have to be to constitute a hazard? How does radiation change the genetic make-up? Which changes are of no consequence and which can be expected to change a healthy cell into a cancer cell? In "Ruperto Carola 2/2005" Gregor Kreth and Christoph Cremer of the Kirchhoff Institute of Physics describe the sophisticated computer models that have been elaborated on the basis of new cell-biological discoveries to assist in the precise prediction of potential radiation damage. Forecasts of this kind are is an important factor in radiation therapy for the treatment of tumours as they would make it easier to estimate the risk of a secondary tumour developing after the successful radiation of an initial tumour. Other articles on theoretical astrophysics, environmental geochemistry and molecular biotechnology round off the range of subjects dealt with in the magazine. In addition, there is an introduction to Germany's first Centre for Modelling and Simulation in the Biosciences.

The Rector in the Editorial: How can we face up to the challenge of higher student numbers?

Teaching instead of research? The title of the Editorial penned by Rector Prof. Dr. Peter Hommelhoff is a definite eye-catcher. It is very probable that the number of students at Germany's universities will continue to rise in the next few years, largely because politicians have been insisting that over 50 percent of school-leavers per year should be given the opportunity to study. What approaches suggest themselves in the bid to face up to the challenge of higher student numbers? Hommelhoff: "Probably the only solution is a whole array of carefully dovetailed individual measures."

"If politicians want to enhance Germany's competitiveness in the future by giving more young people access to highly qualified university education, then they will have to finance this investment for the future by reshuffling state expenditure in favour of higher education." The Rector insists that there is no way of squeezing more teaching capacity out of the universities as they stand. And students can only be called upon to furnish additional financing if this takes place on the basis of newly defined tasks for the state and general tax relief.

Another conceivable approach would be to bump up teaching capacity at the universities of applied science, notably by changing the teacher-student ratio to a drastic extent. In comparison to the universities, the universities of applied sciences are working under paradisiacal conditions, says Hommelhoff. "Just compare the conditions in a huge subject like law at Heidelberg University with the college atmosphere in the economic law department at Pforzheim's University of Applied Sciences." Such privileges can hardly be countenanced any longer and certainly not the way things will be developing in the future.

And the universities? They would need to reorganise their staff structures as soon as the requisite legislation has been passed. This would largely affect the non-professorial staff, says Hommelhoff, but at the professorial level he also sees "synergy potential for teaching". With reference to Anglo-American staff designations such as teaching assistant, reader, lecturer and senior lecturer Hommelhoff thinks it feasible that Germany might introduce a new category of "teaching professors", concentrating on teaching, examinations, student selection and student counselling, rather than on research.

Teaching professors could free German universities of the compulsion to combine new teaching capacities with an even higher (and more expensive) degree of research capacity. Seen thus, the new teaching professor would not just be a way of saving money but above all an instrument for enlisting the services of professors especially interested in, and gifted for, teaching, while at the same time cutting down on scarce research resources. Accordingly, the Rector believes, senior lecturers and teaching professors could be an extremely interesting option for research-oriented universities like Heidelberg in particular.

A look at the dark universe

No more than the foam on the waves of a mighty ocean — this is the stuff that we humans and our world consist of, seen from the viewpoint of the universe. Almost the entire cosmos is made up not of protons, neutrons and electrons — the ingredients of "our world" — but of something entirely different mysteriously called "dark matter". In "Ruperto Carola 2/2005" Matthias Bartelmann of the Centre for Astronomy gives a readily comprehensible and exciting account of what Dark Matter is and the sophisticated methods scientists have to use to enhance their understanding of it.

Detective work in the eternal ice

For centuries and in some cases millennia, ice samples from the past store important information that not only tells us about the global climate in the remote past but can also serve as a basis for projections about the future. Michael Krachler and William Shotyk of the Institute of Environmental Geochemistry describe the work of scientists using the eternal ice as an environmental archive. Here those who know what to look for can track down fascinating facts about the climate of the Earth, its changes and the far-reaching influence exerted on it by human agency.

Detours to the destination

Disorders of the central nervous system like Parkinson's disease, epilepsy or brain tumours are difficult to treat with medication. The blood-brain barrier poses a fundamental problem. It effectively and determinedly protects the central nervous system from incursion by substances that are foreign to the body itself. In "Ruperto Carola 2/2005" Gert Fricker of the Institute of Pharmacy and Molecular Biotechnology explains the tricks scientists have to employ to hoodwink the blood-brain barrier, at least temporarily. These new methods are designed to enable them to get round the protective barrier and provide better therapy for disorders of the central nervous system.

In silico veritas?

Climatologists do them and so do physicists and engineers — so far it's only biologists that have tended to shy away from computer simulations. They have very good reasons for this reluctance. Complex natural processes are very difficult to imitate with theoretical models displayed on screen. But today, modern computer simulation methods make it possible to study biological processes not just in vivo or in vitro but also "in silico" — on the computer — and thus to understand how living systems function in their entirety. Heiko Wacker has been talking to mathematician Willi Jäger about the objectives of Germany's first Centre for Modelling and Simulation in the Biosciences, recently established in Heidelberg. Participating in this new "BIOMS" Centre are the University of Heidelberg, the German Cancer Research Centre, EMBL, the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research and the EML Research institution of the Klaus Tschira Foundation. Funding is assured by the Klaus Tschira Foundation and the state of Baden-Württemberg.

Between September and December 2004 external funding for research projects totalled 37.5 million euros. The magazine lists the most ambitious of them in financial terms. In the section "Reports by Young Researchers" Raffi Bekeredjian gives a brief outline of microbubbles, tiny medication containers that cut down on the side-effects of therapy. In her "News and Views" contribution, Christiane Schiersmann calls for better didactic concepts for e-learning. Finally Paul Kirchhof provides thumbnail biographies of the recipients of the Ruprecht-Karl Prize 2004.

"Ruperto Carola" is published by Universitätsverlag C. Winter Heidelberg GmbH. Single copies cost € 5 plus postage. Like the special subscription offer (€ 30 for four issues) they can be ordered from: Pressestelle der Universität Heidelberg, Postfach 10 57 60, D-69047 Heidelberg. Gratis copies of earlier issues are available in the entrance area of the Old University (Grabengasse 1).

For more information and the complete articles of earlier issues (in German) go to

Please address any inquiries to
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

Inquiries on the title story should be addressed to
Dr. Gregor Kreth and Prof. Dr. Christoph Cremer
Applied Optics and Information Processing
Kirchhoff Institute of Physics
University of Heidelberg
Im Neuenheimer Feld 227
D-69120 Heidelberg
phone: 06221/549252 or 549271

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