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    A realistic look at infections


    New methods and strategies to investigate central mechanisms of human infections are at the centre of a new Research Training Group at the University of Würzburg. Among others, the scientists use special three-dimensional human tissue models for their experiments.

    How do certain pathogens manage to enter the human body? Over which channels do they spread and how do they work, lethally in some cases? Where do they hide from the immune system? Experiments on animal models are usually not capable of delivering the answers to these and other questions, because human tissue and animal tissue are too different.

    Realistic research thanks to tissue engineering

    This is why a new Research Training Group at the University of Würzburg, recently approved by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), has adopted a different approach. The Research Training Group "3D Tissue Models for Studying Microbial Infections by Human Pathogens" aims to develop new methods and strategies that are very similar to natural conditions or reflect major components thereof. Tissue engineering will be used to examine the key mechanisms of human infection by means of three-dimensional human tissue models under realistic conditions. Professor Thomas Rudel, head of the Microbiology Department, is the group's spokesman.

    "Investigating human pathogens is not easy, because the cell cultures and animal models we usually use are artificial systems," Thomas Rudel points out the problem. So the scientists participating in the new training group are suggesting other methods: In a team with the Würzburg-based section of Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology and its head Professor Heike Walles, the experts in infectious diseases will harvest artificial tissue from human cells and use it to study pathogen behaviour. Their research will focus on classic entry points such as the skin, the mucous membranes of the respiratory system and the inner lining of the intestine and urogenital tract.

    The new Research Training Group

    The DFG will provide around five million euros to the Würzburg scientists over the next four and a half years with an option to be extended for the same period. The Research Training Group is set to officially start working in April 2016. These funds will be used to finance 15 Ph.D. students with another ten associated Ph.D. candidates also benefiting from the training opportunities according to Rudel. This gives them the chance to do their doctorate in a top-notch research and qualification programme. The Research Training Groups offer them "a high quality of technical and personal advice" and "much improved structural and financial conditions" to complete their doctorates as the DFG writes.

    The members of the new Research Training Group are from different branches of study and research different pathogens: The lab of Thomas Rudel, for example, specialises in the bacteria genera Neisseria and Chlamydia which can cause meningitis, pneumonia and sexually transmitted diseases. A group of junior researchers at the Centre for Infectious Diseases is dealing with Campylobacter jejuni; the pathogen is currently the most common cause of diarrhoea. Other groups are studying the pathogens causing typhus, pertussis, measles or Trypanosoma, a parasite responsible for sleeping sickness. Overall, infectious diseases are one of the most common causes of death worldwide to date.

    DFG Research Training Groups

    The DFG presently funds 189 Research Training Groups in total, 30.7 percent of which are in the arts and social sciences, 23.8 percent in life sciences, 30.2 percent in natural sciences and 15.3 percent in engineering. They will be joined by 16 newly approved groups set to start working soon.

    There are presently four active Research Training Groups at the University of Würzburg. They conduct research in the fields of organic chemistry, psychology, pharmaceutical and physical chemistry.


    Prof. Dr. Thomas Rudel, Department of Microbiology, Phone: +49 931 31-84401, Thomas.Rudel@biozentrum.uni-wuerzburg.de

    By Gunnar Bartsch