Zurich Aims to Extend High Profile Research on Skin

A new interdisciplinary, large-scale project from the "Hochschulmedizin Zürich" network focuses on skin research in Zurich. This will help the city to become a world-leading centre of research in this field.

The skin is the body’s largest organ. (Photograph: Flickr / Tom Tetro)

Scientists, engineers and physicians at ETH Zurich, the University and university clinics in Zurich will work together in the future to develop new therapies and diagnostic procedures for skin diseases and tissue repair disorders and to investigate the basic mechanisms underlying these diseases. Their large-scale Skintegrity project is a new flagship scheme from “Hochschulmedizin Zürich” (see box). The project requires CHF 1 million in start-up funding, of which half will go to ETH and half to the University of Zurich. Skintegrity officially launched on 1 October.

Optimistic mood

“Already during the planning stage of this large-scale project, it was clear that the project leaders work well together,” says Sabine Werner, the Skintegrity Chair and Professor of Cell Biology at ETH, who has been carrying out fundamental research into skin for many years. Lars French, Professor and Director of the Dermatology Clinic at University Hospital Zurich, is the Co-chair. There is an optimistic mood among skin researchers in Zurich, says Werner. “Each individual scientist involved is determined to make Zurich a world-leading centre for skin research.”

ETH Zurich and the local university institutions already boast a high level of expertise in skin research, both in terms of fundamental research and clinical application. “The Skintegrity project can help to further build on the interdisciplinary strengths of Zurich as a centre for skin research,” says Werner. “Not only will the project strongly promote skin research in Zurich, it will also give a crucial boost to the medical technology industry, the biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry in Switzerland.”

Efficient integration of engineering

The flagship project will involve a range of research teams in Zurich entering into new collaborations, while existing collaborations will be strengthened. “Another new feature is that engineering, which is especially strong at ETH Zurich, will be closely involved in the collaboration,” says Detlef Günther, Vice President Research and Corporate Relations at ETH Zurich. “The University of Zurich, together with the University Hospital and the Children’s hospital, adds medical expertise for translating research results to the clinical practice”, says Christoph Hock, Vice President for Medicine and Science of the University of Zurich.

The interdisciplinary approach of Skintegrity will also have a positive influence on the education of doctors, basic research scientists and engineers. “The young researchers who get involved in the project at this stage will first and foremost receive a truly interdisciplinary education in this field,” explains Werner.

Artificial skin and imaging for lymphatic vessels

Skintegrity encompasses ten sub-projects, in which a total of 26 research group leaders are involved. “There are certainly aspects within these sub-projects that are ready to be applied in practice. One of Skintegrity’s aims is to bring some of the projects addressing therapy and diagnostics to patients within the next few years,” says Werner. A third mainstay of Skintegrity is fundamental research, which aims to ensure that new targets for therapeutic intervention are found within the scope of the project in the medium and long term.

Skintegrity projects include the production of artificial skin for transplant or research purposes, and a project for measuring the mechanical properties of skin in order to diagnose fibrotic skin diseases at an early stage using a non-invasive procedure. In a further project, researchers are developing imaging technology for early diagnosis of lymphatic vessel dysfunction. Finally, scientists are carrying out fundamental research projects using modern biological methods to study the mechanisms of delayed wound healing and the parallels between wound healing and cancer development.

In the medium-term, the project’s founders are aiming to expand the project beyond Zurich. “There are outstanding researchers and clinicians working on skin at other universities in Switzerland. We are currently looking into ways to involve these experts as well as industry in the project,” says ETH Professor Werner. There are also plans to tap into further sources of funding to secure the project’s long-term viability.

Hochschulmedizin Zürich and its flagship projects

“Hochschulmedizin Zürich” is a network consisting of ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich and the local university hospitals. The network’s aim is to promote the interdisciplinary collaboration of engineers, scientists and clinicians at these institutions. In addition to other support measures, once a year University Medicine Zurich runs a visionary large-scale project, known as a flagship project. The flagship projects currently under way include Zurich Heart and Zurich Exhalomics.