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Living Research

By Katrin Althoetmar

Barbara Mayer breeds micro-tumours, Hong Liu builds robotic hands. For both of them it is important that the results of their research are of benefit to society. In this article we take a glimpse at the field of applied research.

Living Research© DLR
The quiet, mid-sized man with the rimless glasses is instantly likeable. It's hard to guess his age but he admits that he is already 43. But what does he mean by "already"? Hong Liu is prone to modesty and looks awkward when a colleague refers to him as "our best". He speaks good German but with a characteristic Asian accent. Having studied mechanics in China, Liu became fascinated by robotics at an early stage in his career. In 1991 he joined the scientific staff at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne where he is currently carrying out research into robotic hands.

Barbara Mayer started out with biology, her weakest subject at school, rather than French and history because of the poor career prospects for teachers. Today she heads up the "Experimental Research - Surgery" department at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich and is the director of SpheroTec GmbH, a promising start-up company carrying out cancer research. When the casually dressed, energetic 46-year old talks about her roles, the enthusiasm for her research is clear.

Foreign scholarships provided a springboard for research

Both Hong Liu and Barbara Mayer carry out research with a clear practical orientation and the results of this research are intended to reach and affect society as a whole. Although applied research has become increasingly popular in recent years, in Germany it is still very much the exception rather than the norm.

So in order to get a more pronounced practical orientation, both researchers opted to go abroad. In 1989 after completing her primary degree in biology, Barbara Mayer took up a postdoctoral position in Toronto thanks to a Canadian scholarship. In her three years there she learned about spheroid technology which uses cultivated cells to produce spherical cell cultures. This is the most important factor in her current activities and is an emerging trend for cancer therapy.

In 1991 Hong Liu was awarded one of the few scholarships offered by the Chinese government to support researchers who wanted to go to Germany. The then 25-year old had just spent seven years at Harbin Institute of Technology in China where he earned a masters degree and had almost finished his PhD. The scholarship allowed him to spend six months at the DLR carrying out research in robotics.

For both researchers, an intercultural dimension continues to play an important role in their work. Barbara Mayer draws on her international contacts to support her research work and acquisitions and Hong Liu plays an important role as linguistic and cultural mediator on Sino-German cooperation projects.

An idea from the back of the drawer: Breeding micro-tumours

Barbara Mayer returned to Munich in 2001 after leaving a permanent position as an assistant professor. By then she had completed her habilitation to prepare her for becoming a full professor at a German university and had comprehensively optimised spheroid technology. In 2003 when the Technology and Transfer Centre at LMU asked "Do you have an idea sitting in a drawer somewhere?" she applied for the Munich business plan competition together with Ilona Funke, a medical doctor who is now her business partner. They quickly set about work with a sense of determination and applied for a patent for their enhanced spheroid technology which was a vital requirement for setting up SpheroTec GmbH in 2006.

What makes the new spheroid technology developed by Mayer and Funke so unique is that it is possible grow micro-tumours the size of a pin head using cell cultures which are very similar to the actual tumours in cancer patients. Thanks to these new living, miniature tumours it is possible to test new treatments with a very high degree of realism and more quickly than was previously possible. This doesn't just have an impact on the quality of treatment, it also reduces costs.

SpheroTec also uses cancerous tissue from patients to create micro-tumours which have similar characteristics to the original tumours, and this makes it possible to develop new, personalised cancer treatment regimes. So can Barbara Mayer cure cancer then? "No" she declares adamantly "but by using micro-tumours it is possible to predict the effectiveness of a treatment much more precisely". This means that doctors can select the most effective medication for a specific patient's tumour with the lowest risk of side effects before starting treatment.

A specialist with a passion builds robotic hands

"If you can make something in life better, and the support is there for you to do it, then you simply have to throw yourself into your work". This very belief is the reason Hong Liu, together with his wife and two children, is still living in Germany. After finishing his scholarship and doctorate in China, Liu was given the opportunity to stay on as a researcher at the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics for three years, after which time he intended returning to his native China. Then Dr. Hirzinger offered him a permanent, tenured job. Since then he has become an indispensable part of the team and works as a project leader-his official title is coordinator-on multi-sensory, highly dexterous robotic hands.

While the robotic hand with five fingers which they have recently developed is primarily intended for research and industrial applications, it is also conceivable that it could be used as a hand prosthesis or be further developed for use in service robots. "The demand for this is enormous," explains Liu, "particularly in countries with large numbers of war veterans or in areas involving supporting the elderly or disabled". However, it will take at least another three years of intensive interdisciplinary research until the hand is small enough, can grip objects perfectly and has skin which looks more like human skin.

Applied Research: Does it pay off?

Hong Liu is fully aware of his privileged situation as a researcher at the DLR. "I'm very happy here because I have quite a lot of peace and room to think and work". The financial support for his work comes from various state sources, from projects and third party sources as well as from the sale of the robotic hands. The ambition to achieve success with his research is palpable as is the pride that some of "his" hands are already in use and that his team has already picked up two awards for their work.

As an entrepreneur, Barbara Mayer is under even more pressure. In addition to start-up funding, the first few years fortunately saw money coming from various prizes. At the moment there are investors from both the public and private sectors which means her company is currently in a position to recruit five new members of staff. Barbara works hard, often at weekends, but then she does have two jobs which see her spending 20% of her time working for the university and the remaining 80% for SpheroTec. At least that's the theory. In reality her workload reflects her general attitude to life: "I'm definitely a 150% person".

Looking forward to a quiet retirement?

Both scientists have already given some thought to what they will do after their careers as researchers have come to an end. Barbara Mayer, who would prefer to "still be there in the lab, pipette in hand" wants to become a wine expert with her own vineyard. Having said that, it's likely that she won't be able to completely turn her back on the lab until she has produced the perfect wine.

And what about Hong Liu? "When I retire then I'll happily spend half of my time in China and half in Germany" he says after a moment or two thinking about it. In China he will go back to his childhood and live with his siblings. But will he come up with the perfect toy robot for his grandchildren, nieces and nephews?

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