The serious EHEC outbreak in Germany in 2011, the 2009 swine flu pandemic, the bird flu pandemic in 2005 and 2006 and the SARS outbreak in China in 2003, all of which have fuelled the fear of devastating epidemics for many people in Germany, have fortunately all been contained – at least up until now. However, experts warn of new dangerous pathogens that are spreading as a result of globalization and global climate warming. This is leading to new challenges, as many infectious diseases are becoming resistant to medical treatment.
Dengue fever is the most common infectious disease transmitted by mosquitoes. The disease is spreading in Europe and Germany, an upward trend that is due to increased long-distance travel. There are no specific drugs or vaccine for dengue, which is why an international research network has been established to improve the management of the disease. The consortium is coordinated by the Department of Tropical Medicine at Heidelberg University.
Exotic mosquitoes such as the Asian rock pool mosquito and the Asian tiger mosquito are invading many countries around the world including European ones. This is a direct result of rising temperatures and increasing international travel and transport of goods. Entomologists virologists and tropical medicine experts are working together on a number of projects aimed at monitoring the distribution of mosquitoes across Europe and reducing the risk of disease transmission.
There is a well-known saying: travel broadens the mind. This is not the only consequence of travel – the biochemist Dr. Dirk Linke from Tübingen travelled to India on holiday and brought back an idea for a new scientific project. Since his return, his idea, the possibility of developing a vaccine with a wide-ranging effect against some of the most frequent diarrhoea pathogens, has even generated financial backing from prominent supporters.
In conjunction with reference laboratories of the World Health Organization WHO medtech company Curetis AG is developing new technologies and products that identify the pathogens of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and their resistance. The solutions are impressive.
In Germany, test methods that enable the identification of an infection caused by the new influenza A/H1N1 virus, even after the symptoms have subsided or disappeared completely, have become available for the first time. The National Influenza Reference Centre (NRZ) at the Robert Koch Institute has developed two serological tests based on the detection of antibodies in the blood serum. The antibodies are produced about 2 weeks after onset of disease and can be detected months and years later.
Over 150 scientists at various locations throughout Germany work together as part of the German Centre for Infection Research (DZIF). The centre focuses on the development of new diagnostic, preventive and therapeutic methods for treating infectious diseases. Scientists from the University and University Hospital of Tübingen and the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology are also part of the project. The researchers from Tübingen are mainly involved in research into and the search for new drugs against malaria, gastrointestinal diseases and infections caused by bacteria resistant to commonly used antibiotics. As clinical trials specialists, the researchers from Tübingen have been conducting since November 2014 a clinical trial in Africa for a potential Ebola vaccine on behalf of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Researchers from Heidelberg and Berlin have shown that if malaria-infected mice are administered an antibiotic, no parasites appear in the blood and the mice are protected from this life-threatening disease. The scientists believe that antibiotics also have the potential to strengthen the human immune system as well as making it possible to provide a natural needle-free vaccination against malaria.
After many decades, efforts to develop an effective vaccine against malaria have finally brought researchers closer to their goal. However, the goal of eradicating malaria completely can only be reached through a complex strategy, to which researchers from Heidelberg are making intensive contributions.
Acute pneumonia usually leaves doctors with no choice the situation can quickly become life threatening requiring doctors to act quickly. Instead of waiting for laboratory results they often prescribe an antibiotic that is effective against numerous bacterial species in the hope that it will also work against the bacterium that has caused the inflammation in the lung tissue. Curetis AG from Holzgerlingen close to Stuttgart has developed a miniature laboratory that facilitates and hugely accelerates the diagnosis of pneumonia pathogens.
The spectrum of human diseases (mycoses) caused by fungi ranges from trivial nail infections to life-threatening systemic infections. The latter are mainly caused by Candida albicans. The dermatologist Prof. Dr. med. Martin Schaller from Tübingen is investigating how this fungus, which is actually part of the normal microbial flora of humans, becomes a pathogen. At the same time, he is looking into the role the patient’s immune system plays in this process.
Mould fungus spores which are found in air aerosols are constantly being taken up in the air we inhale. As a rule this poses no danger to healthy people. However depending on the quantity of spores inhaled and the duration of exposure mould fungi could possibly lead or contribute to lung diseases and allergies. Dr. Mardas Daneshian and his team at the University of Constance are focusing on the immunostimulatory capacity of fungal spores. The researchers are particularly interested in the interaction of the immune system with the fungal spores and are using an in-vitro lung model for their investigations.
Yeast infections are becoming a growing threat in intensive care medicine and only a small number of effective drugs – so-called antimycotics – are available. The scientist Dr. Steffen Rupp from Stuttgart is investigating the individual steps of the infection process in order to find key mechanisms in the fungus that can be targeted.
Dirk Linke 37 has been awarded the Advancement Award of the German Society for Hygiene and Microbiology Deutsche Gesellschaft für Hygiene und Mikrobiologie DGHM. The award includes prize money of 2500 Euro and will be presented on September 20th 2009 during the 61st Annual Meeting of the DGHM in Göttingen.
Parasites of the Trypanosomatidae family cause a number of serious human diseases. Researchers from Italy, Belgium, and Germany have published the identification of novel anti-parasitic compounds targeting an enzyme unique to the parasites. These compounds are promising for the development of drugs with fewer side-effects than current medical treatments.
The world's first commercial detection method for the Schmallenberg virus is now available for all laboratories. Kornwestheim-based AnDiaTec GmbH & Co. KG, specialists in detection methods for pathogens in the veterinary field, has just received approval for its product from the Friedrich-Löffler-Institut under the German Ordinance on Working with Animal Pathogens (Tierseuchengesetz). The virus, which has led, among other things, to stillbirths and miscarriages in livestock such as cattle and sheep throughout the whole of Europe in the last few months, can now be detected quickly and reliably.
As the recent discussion on the pros and cons of swine flu vaccinations has shown vaccinations are not very popular in Germany. However people tend to forget that no other medical development has helped people to the same extent as immunisation with vaccines has done. Examples include the discovery of the cow pox vaccination by Edward Jenner in 1796 and all the programmes that have been set up by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation GAVI since 2000 which have enabled more than 250 million children in developing countries to be vaccinated saving an estimated five million lives.
Infections caused by mosquito-borne Zika viruses during pregnancy can lead to severe brain defects in babies. The European Union has provided funding of around ten million euros for an international research programme on Zika virus infections in which the University Hospital of Heidelberg plays a key role.
There is an alarming rise in infections caused by bacteria that are resistant to common antibiotics. A particular problem is nosocomial (hospital-acquired) infections of newborns, for which a Germany-wide surveillance system has been established. Novel natural substances with an antibiotic effect might be able to contain the danger.
An estimated 220 million people become infected with malaria each year the disease is often lethal. The infected suffer from a high fever. As this is also the case with other germs however it is important to conduct a rapid and precise analysis to determine the cause of the disease for a successful therapy. A team of researchers aims to develop a rapid test of this kind within the context of the project DiscoGnosis. The project is being coordinated by the Department of Microsystems Engineering IMTEK of the University of Freiburg.
Yersinia enterocolitica, a pathogenic bacterium, causes fever and diarrhea. By help of a protein anchored in its membrane, Yersinia attaches to its host cells and infects them. Scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen and the Leibniz-Institut fuer Molekulare Pharmakologie in Berlin have determined the structure of an important component of the membrane protein and have gained insight into its biogenesis. The membrane proteins provide an interesting starting point for the development of new antibiotics against pathogens.
It is not easy for the body to protect itself once a virus has broken through the body’s lines of defence and caused a chronic infection. This task is made even more difficult when the intruders are viral hepatitis pathogens that attack the liver, the place where immunological tolerance is induced. Jörg Reimann (physician) and Reinhold Schirmbeck (biologist) are working on the development of T-cell-mediated therapeutic vaccination strategies to suppress chronic virus infections in the liver. Their approach takes them into the impassable terrain of basic immunological principles of regulation and dominance.
The first anti-cancer vaccines were developed to prevent women from becoming infected with papillomaviruses and to protect them against cervical cancer. The development of vaccines can be traced back to the work of Nobel Laureate Harald zur Hausen and his colleagues at the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg. But more development is required in the field of anti-cancer vaccines and this is why researchers worldwide are working on vaccines that can also be used in developing countries.
Dr. Markus Mordstein has spent the last four years as a doctoral student at the University of Freiburg investigating the previously relatively unknown interferon lambda. He has been able to show that this molecule has similar protective functions to type I interferons and he has also found that it is far more selective in terms of the site where it exerts its effect.
Drinking water that is pathogen-free and safe for humans flows from German taps. There is no nutrient as vital to human beings as water and – at least in Germany – that is subjected to so many checks and controls. Nevertheless, access to clean drinking water is not to be taken as given. According to the latest WHO figures (2011), 768 million people do not have access to healthy drinking water, especially in some of the poorer African countries. The project “DNA-Crack” from Ulm aims to change this situation.