Infection research is one of the major scientific beacons of the University of Tübingen, where the close thematic collaboration between scientists and doctors is the key to success. The close collaboration between scientists and doctors at the university also played a key role in the setting up of two collaborative research centres (SFB). With the recent establishment of the Interfaculty Institute for Microbiology and Infection Medicine (IMIT), the researchers hope to further boost their excellent position in this field.
“Tübingen is one of the top locations in Germany for research into pathogenic bacteria, and is maybe even the leader in this field,” said Professor Dr. Wolfgang Wohlleben, microbiologist at the University of Tübingen.
In recent years, numerous research groups at the biology and medicine faculties of the University of Tübingen have raised the University's profile with their impressive list of successes: the SFB 766 entitled "The bacterial cell envelope: structure, function and interface during infection", the "Infection biology" research training centre and sub-projects of the Transregio-SFB 34 entitled "Pathophysiology of staphylococci in the postgenomic era" have all been organised by researchers from Tübingen. The establishment of the Interfaculty Institute for Microbiology and Infection Medicine (IMIT) at the end of 2009, is another important milestone on the road to success for medical and biological researchers.
"The establishment of the IMIT means that we are no longer restricted to concentrating our research on SFB topics, which focus mainly on the properties of the bacterial cell envelope. We are now free to work on other related themes," said Wohlleben, who heads up the Department of Microbiology/Biotechnology and whose main focus is antibiotics research. His two major goals are to clarify the biosynthesis of certain antibiotics and to use genetic engineering to produce completely new substances. Research in this field continues to be of major importance in today's world. The WHO rates infectious diseases as the number one cause of deaths worldwide. Infectious diseases are the second most frequent cause of death after cardiovascular diseases in Germany. Doctors are finding it increasingly difficult to combat pathogens that are resistant to one or more antibiotics.
Researchers in the new institute will also focus on the investigation of signalling pathways and immunological reactions that occur in eukaryotic cells during the process of infection. “Although we will continue to focus on basic research, clinical application will have a more important role to play from now on,” said Wohlleben. This objective is reflected in the IMIT’s organisation; four of the seven IMIT professors are from the Faculty of Biology and three are from the Faculty of Medicine.Interdisciplinary cooperation has stood the test of time in Tübingen. Wohlleben has worked closely with scientific and medical colleagues for many years. Wohlleben has seen at first hand how such collaboration can benefit all parties involved. “Synergies often arise when a scientific issue is approached jointly by people with different skills and different perspectives.”
For example, the research groups led by Professor Dr. Friedrich Götz, head of the Department of Microbial Genetics, and Professor Dr. Andreas Peschel from the Institute of Medical Microbiology and Hygiene have close thematic links. These two research groups are working with Staphylococcus aureus, a pathogen that causes many life-threatening diseases. While Götz is mainly looking into the issue of Staphylococcus biofilm formation, which causes chronic implant infections, Peschel is investigating the molecular structures that enable staphylococci to attach to human cells.
There is another close thematic link between the research being carried out by Professor Dr. Karl Forchhammer, head of the Department of Physiological Ecology of Plants, and Professor Dr. Ingo Autenrieth, medical director of the Institute of Medical Microbiology and Hygiene. Forchhammer's and Autenrieth's research groups are investigating the recognition and interaction mechanisms that occur when bacteria interact with their hosts. "We believe that the basic processes are very similar in both plant cells and human intestinal epithelial cells," said Wohlleben.
It goes without saying that, in each case, both partners benefit from the thematic links. On the one hand, findings gained in basic biomedical research can be transferred more rapidly into clinical application. On the other hand, the clinical observations also provide the basic researchers with new impulses for their research. The research groups involved in infectious disease research also benefit from a number of other advantages at the IMIT. In recent years, laboratory equipment has become more and more sophisticated and therefore also increasingly expensive. “Individual groups find it difficult to cover rising costs,” said Wohlleben. From now on, all equipment and methods, including specifically trained staff, will be available to all groups. “This not only enables more efficient research, but also generates huge cost savings,” said Wohlleben.In addition, the IMIT offers its research groups a platform that helps increase the visibility of their joint research. Wohlleben is very hopeful that this approach will lead to success in the next Excellence Cluster round, particularly given that collaborative agreements with the chemical and pharmaceutical institutes, the Institute of Medical Virology and Parasitology and the Max Planck Institute are already in place. In the long term, the IMIT’s objective is to become a global leader among infectious disease research institutes. Wohlleben is fairly optimistic: “Whatever happens, the foundations are already in place.”