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Why do hepatitis virus infections become chronic?

The German Research Foundation (DFG) has approved funding for a new research project at the Universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg. The researchers are working on improving our understanding of the mechanisms that lead to chronic virus infections: how do hepatitis viruses manage to evade immunological defence reactions and survive in the organism without damaging the organism?

The research project entitled “Mechanisms of persistence of hepatotropic viruses”, which will involve the use of novel cell culture systems, will receive over 400,000 euro in funding. Professor Dr. Ralf Bartenschlager from the University of Heidelberg is the spokesperson and Professor Dr. Robert Thimme from the University of Freiburg is the deputy spokesperson of the new research unit.

More than 500 million people worldwide are chronic carriers of the hepatitis B or C viruses; there are around 500,000 chronic carriers in Germany. These infected persons have a high risk of developing liver cell tumours or liver cirrhosis. Many of these patients eventually die of liver failure. Vaccination is currently available against hepatitis B viruses, but not against hepatitis C. Anti-viral therapy is only available to a limited extent and, furthermore, it is rather expensive.

The viruses are to be investigated in unique cell culture systems

Since no suitable animal models are available to investigate persistent infections, the researchers have to utilise cell cultures. In co-operation with scientists from the University of Freiburg, the Heidelberg researchers have already developed highly efficient virus culture systems. “It is known that the persistence of the viruses is the result of a complex interaction of numerous factors,” explains Professor Robert Thimme, who has recently accepted a position as the first ever Heisenberg professor at the Medical Faculty in Freiburg. “Different concepts to explain the molecular mechanisms are being discussed, and our six subprojects will focus on these theories.”

The scientists expect their research results to also be valid for other persistent viral infections. They also envisage the results to prove useful in the long-term for the development of new immunotherapies, such as HCV vaccines.

Basis for a competence centre

Within the DFG-funded research units, researchers from different disciplines work together on a particular scientific topic. The funding for such research units provides for the personnel and equipment that are required for medium-term (usually six years) co-operation and contributes to the establishment of new research directions.

Contact:

Prof. Dr. Robert Thimme
Department of Medicine II
Faculty of Medicine
University of Freiburg
Hugstetter Straße 55
79106 Freiburg
Tel.: +49 (0)761 270 3280
Fax: +49 (0)761 270 3372
E-mail: robert.thimme(at)uniklinik-freiburg.de

Prof. Dr. Ralf Bartenschlager
Department of Molecular Virology / Institute of Hygiene
Faculty of Medicine
University of Heidelberg
Im Neuenheimer Feld 345
69120 Heidelberg
Tel.: +49 (0)6221 56 45 69
Fax: +49 (0)6221 56 45 70
E-mail: Ralf_Bartenschlager(at)med.uni-heidelberg.de

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/press-release/why-do-hepatitis-virus-infections-become-chronic