Experimental Virology

Viruses are vehicles which transmit biological information, reprogramming the function of human, animal or plant cells to produce progeny virions. Viral pathogens are very small, often with a very simple structure. Indeed, enveloped viruses are composed only of a protein shell filled with genetic material, surrounded by a lipid envelope decorated with viral proteins. Nevertheless, viral pathogens like HIV or the hepatitis C virus (HCV) threaten the health of many millions of individuals. Important human pathogens among the group of RNA viruses include hepatitis C virus (HCV) and the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

According to WHO estimates, approximately 130 to 150 million people are chronically infected with HCV (WHO Fact Sheet N°164). As a consequence of chronic infection, many patients develop an inflammation of the liver (hepatitis) which can compromise the function of the organ, leading to fibrosis, cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. Annually approximately 500 000 individuals die due to the long-term consequences of a chronic HCV infection. Fortunately, HCV therapies have been much improved over the past years and today efficacious directly acting antivirals (DAAs) are available. Combination therapies including drugs for different viral targets can eliminate the virus and cure more than 90 % of HCV infected patients. However, major challenges remain: These therapies are highly expensive thus limiting access. Moreover, the vast majority of HCV patients is not diagnosed and due to the slow onset of liver disease is not aware of their infection. Finally, therapy-induced cure does not protect from HCV reinfection.  Therefore, major research and public health measures are critical to globally reduce the disease burden by HCV. HCV is mainly transmitted through exposure to infectious blood but distinct patterns of HCV virus transmission have been described, according to geographic region. In Germany and most other high-income countries HCV is primarily transmitted by injection drug use. In contrast, in developing countries where adequate hygiene measures are not routinely in place, transmission via contaminated blood transfusions and unsafe use of syringes still is a major challenge. It has been estimated that three to four million individuals are infected newly each year. Collectively, due to these factors introduction of antivirals alone is unlikely to rapidly reduce HCV disease burden and transmission. Therefore, development of a prophylactic vaccine is an important clinical need and major challenge.

The respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), like HCV, is distributed globally. RSV can cause severe lower respiratory tract infections; particularly in small children and in immunocompromised patients, for instance transplant recipients. Globally RSV accounts for 33.4 million cases of acute lower respiratory tract infections (ALRI) and between 53 and 199 thousand deaths due to RSV-associated ALRI annually (Nair D, et al. Lancet 2010; 375:1545-55). Currently, there are few treatment options available and no active vaccination that prevents RSV infection is licensed. A monoclonal antibody targeting one of the viral surface proteins (F protein) is used for passive immune protection of children at high risk for severe RSV infection (e.g. children born preterm). Encouragingly, several vaccination approaches including live attenuated RSV variants and recombinant soluble F protein are in clinical development. Moreover, first directly acting antivirals (e.g. RSV membrane fusion inhibitors) have advanced to clinical evaluation for future treatment of RSV infected patients. While these activities raise hope that vaccines and antiviral therapies for RSV can be developed major research efforts are needed to identify novel drug targets, and to understand RSV pathogenesis at the molecular level. Ultimately these efforts are needed to improve therapeutic options and to identify those individuals that most urgently require an RSV prophylaxis.

Researchers within the Division of Experimental Virology, headed by Prof. Dr. Pietschmann, utilize multidisciplinary approaches to investigate the complex lifecycles of these two important viral pathogens. Moreover, the Division Experimental Virology hosts the research teams headed by Prof. Dr. Christine Goffinet (Innate immunity and viral evasion) and by PD Dr. Eike Steinmann (Virus transmission).These two groups enrich the Division´s activities in two key areas of virus research. Collectively, we aim to expand the understanding of basic replication principles of viral pathogens at the molecular level and to translate this information into new approaches for prevention and/or treatment of viral diseases in humans.


16. June 2017

"Deutscher AIDS-Preis 2017" for Christine Goffinet

Jun.-Professorin Christine Goffinet, Leiterin der Arbeitsgruppe Angeborene Immunität und Virale Evasion am Institut für Experimentelle Virologie, und Ihre Mitarbeiterinnen Dr. Shuting Xu und Dr. Aurélie Ducroux erhielten am 16....

09. March 2017

New perspectives for research on hepatitis C virus

The hepatitis C virus (HCV) infects around 160 million people worldwide. Although there are new therapies, HCV infection is still one of the most common causes of liver transplantation as these new drugs are very expensive and...

13. February 2017

WHO handrub formulations are effective against emerging viruses

In the last few years, previously unknown viruses or viruses, which were considered eliminated, have been unveiled: last year, the World Health Organization WHO declared “A Public Health Emergency of International Concern”...