Prof. Dr. Ulrich Dirnagl
Prof. Dr. Ulrich Dirnagl  © Stefan Voitl

Prof. Dr. Ulrich Dirnagl: building bridges

Back to overview

An international top-class scientific advisory board is supporting Wings for Life in its work. We are pleased to present to you the members of this board and explain their work for the foundation. Today: Neurologist Ulrich Dirnagl from the Charité University Medicine in Berlin. But why is a stroke researcher interested in spinal cord injuries?

The director of the Institute for Experimental Neurology of the Charité University Medicine Berlin sits in his office in a brick building from the Wilhelmine area. The campus close to the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate emanates a time-honoured atmosphere. Some might have the impression that researchers working here reflect their environment. White haired, traditional, a little bit out of this modern world. Meeting Prof. Dr. Ulrich Dirnagl with expectations like these will end with a surprise. While his hair is indeed turning grey, he has very little else in common with the stereotype of the Professor in his ivory-tower.

Instead of a suit and a tie Dirnagl wears a sweater and a lime green softshell jacket, under which a sportive digital clock sticks out. If you see the Director of the Institute early in the morning on a skateboard you are not hallucinating. "I used to go the park just around the corner to skate in the bowl every morning. But then I went to Ulm for a lecture. When I had a go at the local skatepark I fell badly, hurting my shoulder. Hence I have to slow down, which is quite hard for me". The German Freestyle Master of 1976 says he realizes how much he misses doing Sports. "I always have to keep moving. Because of my shoulder I can't even sail at the moment, which really affects my mood".

No wonder that he misses the balance, since the jack of all trades Dirnagl is not only Professor for clinical Neuroscience and Head of the department of Experimental Neurology. He is also Director of the Centre for Stroke Research Berlin, as well as teacher, coordinator, editor, advisor and scientific advisor for Wings for Life. He is neither missing positions nor ambitions. Striving to connect what seems to be unconnectable is the defining element of Dirnagls work. He is building the bridge between work and sports as elegantly as many others in his life. On a lecture tour he often goes with "heavy gear", as he says. Then he travels with skateboard and protective equipment as well as with his laptop and the latest papers he has to edit. Another urge of Dirnagl prevents his work from suffering under his need to move: finding and understanding relations. "I was interested in natural sciences since my school days. But these fields of studies I found too specialized, so I studied Medicine, because it consists of everything I find fascinating in science. I took blood samples from my relatives and counted blood cells when I was 13 years old. Maybe something stuck then".

Still Dirnagl believes his career has been shaped by chance encounters. He was at the right time at the right place, he says. Liking computers was what led to meeting "Karl Einhäupl, who was kind of a computer guru back then. By chance this was in Neurology." His programming brought him in contact with research, which in turn led him to the USA. "It was there that I learned that scientific work is not something you can do like that. You have to learn it. It is something that requires very high quality standards. William Pulsinelli replicated studies in his lab during a time when nobody spoke of that. He did this only to exclude methodical mistakes.

The methodical excellence he learned there is still a reference in his institute today. Though the emphasis here is on stroke research, there are so many links to spinal cord research that it is hard not to forget the important ones. "In both cases there is some tissue damage in the central nervous system, generally acute damage. The nervous systems of vertebrates show relatively stereotypical reactions. Strokes and spinal cord trauma are quite similar. The mechanisms of damage as well as repair are overlapping. That is why stroke and spinal cord researchers can learn so much from each other."

Neurologists benefiting from computer scientists, spinal cord and stroke researchers learning from one another and basic researchers learning from clinicians. Dirnagl sees himself as impulse generator. He knows from his own experience that nothing is predestined. He is doing his work like a conductor, with a fine sense for the right timing he finds connections, builds bridges, to connect soloists to an orchestra.
Today translation, the tight connection of basic research and clinical application, is a core aspect of Dirnagls work. The fact that this work will never end, does not disturb him. On the contrary: "I don't think any scientist seriously expects to ever finish their work. You do make progress, though, but often you may know less in the evening than you knew in the morning. It always gets more complex. But I don't take this as a drawback. That is what makes this occupation so attractive. It never gets boring. It is only up to me, my curiosity and my preferences, in which direction I'll go."

As member of the scientific advisory board Dirnagl can do this also for Wings for Life. One important duty of such a board is to make a selection of the multitude of applications that are received each year. Which ones are promising? Which come closest to the mission of the foundation? "At the end we make a list and those on that list will be supported. But there is also a strategic advisory service for the foundation. In which direction should it head, in order to come closest to its mission?" The goal is clear for the Wings for Life foundation: spinal cord injury must become curable. "That's ambitious, but today the Neurology has reached a point where it doesn't seem crazy to actually cure something as fatal as a spinal cord injury. The price is high, but it is worthwhile to try this approach. One has to attempt innovative ways and means. As a consequence chances of success are uncertain."

"Examples are cell therapies of factor-based therapies. They enable to overcome growth barriers in the central nervous system, which normally make a cure impossible. There is a lot of hope in this field, here there is the price to win. However, making predictions about which approach will win the price in the end would be like reading tea leaves. Maybe it's a combination of approaches. Hence the foundation supports them all and in the end we'll see which comes closest to the goal.

Whether he is a sportsman, clinician or basic researcher, Dirnagl knows about the uncertainty of each possible path. How important it is to be at the right place at the right time. And to find somebody then who helps to build bridges. So that it can go on, towards the goal.

I studied Medicine, because...
... for me it is the most exciting combination of natural sciences.

Spinal cord research interests me, because...
... organisms developed quite complicated mechanisms, in order to prevent such injuries from healing. 1. That has to mean something. 2 What does it mean? 3. How can we overcome it?

Besides the laboratory my passion is...
... too many other things.

A perfect day for me is...
... some form of outdoor activity and having a nice picnic.

In my lifetime I would love to live to see...
... the technology enabling us to protect nerve tissue from damage and regenerate damaged cells.

Interview and Text: Jochen Müller