Zooming in on the essentials of life!

Image: Dr. Oliver Bruns. Source: Carolin Jacklin Photography

Literate in a variety of disciplines, Dr. Oliver Bruns combines cutting-edge technologies to bring unseen physiological processes to light. Since January 2018, he pursues his interdisciplinary approach to research at the Helmholtz Pioneer Campus, a new initiative at the Helmholtz Zentrum München.

What sounds like science fiction may actually be harbingers of future technology – Dr. Oliver Bruns kick-started his career by repurposing military technology. The result: our body becomes "transparent" and biochemical processes in living tissues tractable in real time. Bruns’ research is motivated to revolutionize clinical diagnosis and medical practice. The 38-year-old calls it a "trick" when he describes how to label lipoproteins with nanoparticles, enabling imaging in the infrared spectrum of light. "Specially equipped microscopes and newly developed cameras that take more than 60 frames per second reveal unprecedented structural detail without much surgical intervention", says the researcher enthusiastically. 

Bruns himself custom-develops the unique imaging modalities that help him visualize  desired biological structures. For this, the trained biochemist has the ideal background: already as a student he was fascinated with the idea to visualize biological processes deep inside tissues – and pioneered nanoparticle development to achieve this goal. He continued groundbreaking work in Hamburg, Barcelona and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge (USA). Trained in biochemistry and structural biology, he gradually shifted into chemistry as well as material- and engineering sciences, a unique combination he deploys to push the limits of biomedical imaging.

Already as a child Bruns liked playing with a microscope. "Back then, my microscope was of very poor quality", he recalls. Today, he works at the forefront of Nano- and Imaging technologies. The new insights do not only satisfy his personal curiosity, but are deployed to tangibly improve diagnostics and impact future therapies. Such practical applications are a strong motivator for Bruns. So far, the pioneer has developed technologies to reliably diagnose middle ear infections in infants or to visualize metabolic processes in healthy and diseased tissue. Applying the latter to brown adipose tissue could provide a new leverage point in the prevention of obesity and thus diabetes risk management: "If we would just better understand which processes and drug candidates control the activity of brown adipose tissue – which is burning calories to produce heat - we could develop novel strategies to treat obesity and diabetes ", explains Bruns.

Since January 2018, Oliver Bruns follows his passion for imaging and translation at the Helmholtz Pioneer Campus. Again being first, namely in setting up the first pioneer team titled shortwave infrared (SWIR) imaging. "Here I have the unique opportunity to closely collaborate with biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers and physicians. I hope to transform the freedom of minimal administration and no mandatory teaching into accelerated development of tools and technologies", says Brus when reflecting on his new scientific environment. "A growing team of specialists from different disciplines will allow me to realize many of my scientific ideas. Surrounded by likeminded colleagues, we will be able to tackle unexpected challenges and succeed in transformative discoveries."

Being open to unconventional ideas, while not loosing sight of the principle objective – is for Bruns one of the secrets behind innovation. A passionate and enthusiastic scientist by heart, he finds his balance in the lab: "If I can focus on my research, I am the happiest person. My batteries recharge and I'm sparkling with energy!"

Further Information

The Helmholtz Pioneer Campus (HPC) is an innovation campus with a startup culture, routed in the Helmholtz Zentrum Munich and part of the Helmholtz Association, Germany’s largest research community. HPC stands for the smart fusion of biomedical sciences, engineering and digitization in a research environment that has no parallel in Europe. Helmholtz pioneers pave the way for tomorrow’s biomedical breakthroughs. Teams of top scientific talents from all over the world work together on the development of novel solutions that make a difference in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of metabolic diseases.


Technology development:
Bruns OT*
, Bischof TS*, Harris DK, Franke D, Shi Y, Riedemann L, Bartelt A, Jaworski FB, Carr JA, Rowlands CJ, Wilson MWB, Chen O, Wei H, Hwang GW, Montana DM, Coropceanu I, Achorn OB, Kloepper J, Heeren J, So PTC, Fukumura D, Jensen KF, Jain RK, Bawendi MG, Next-generation in vivo optical imaging with short-wave infrared quantum dots, Nature Biomedical Engineering 1, Article number: 0056 (2017)

Clinical application:
Carr JA, Valdez TA, Bruns OT, Bawendi MG, Using the shortwave infrared to image middle ear pathologies. PNAS, 2016 Sep 6;113(36):9989-94.

Biomedical application:
Bartelt A, Widenmaier SW, Schlein C, Johann K, Goncalves RL, Eguchi K, Fischer AW, Parlakgül G, Snyder N, Nguyen TB, Bruns OT, Franke D, Bawendi MG, Lynes MD, Leiria LO, Tseng YH, Inouye K, Arruda AP and Hotamisligil GS.Brown adipose tissue thermogenic adaptation requires Nrf1-mediated proteasomal activity, Nature Medicine, 2018 Epub Feb 5 

Technology development:
Bruns OT*
, Ittrich H, Peldschus K, Kaul MG, Tromsdorf UI, Lauterwasser J, Nikolic MS, Mollwitz B, Merkel M, Bigall NC, Sapra S, Reimer R, Hohenberg H, Weller H, Eychmüller A, Adam G, Beisiegel U, Heeren J, Real-time magnetic resonance imaging and quantification of lipoprotein metabolism in vivo using nanocrystals, Nature Nanotechnology, 2009 Mar;4(3):193-201.

Biomedical application:
Bartelt A, Bruns OT, Reimer R, Hohenberg H, Ittrich H, Peldschus K, Kaul MG, Tromsdorf UI, Weller H, Waurisch C, Eychmüller A, Gordts PLSM, Rinninger F, Bruegelmann K, Freund B, Nielsen P, Merkel M and Heeren J, Brown adipose tissue activity controls triglyce ride clearance. Nature Medicine, 2011 Feb;17(2):200-5.