Virtual Institute investigates Virus Infections

Cells infected with CMV carrying Green Fluorescent Protein

Understanding the tricks and survival strategies of viruses to effectively combat them: That is the goal of the virtual institute VISTRIE that received its funding commitment today. VISTRIE, which stands for “Viral Strategies of Immune Evasion”, is a joint program grant with independent management structures receiving funding by the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres. Coordinated by the German Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (Helmholtz-Zentrum für Infektionsforschung, HZI) in Braunschweig, five university and non-university research institutions combine their expertise: the HZI, the Medical School Hannover, the TWINCORE Centre for Experimental and Clinical Infection Research in Hannover, the Heinrich-Heine-University in Düsseldorf in Germany and the University of Rijeka in Croatia. Their object of study: the widespread Cytomegalovirus (CMV).

“Viruses are the smallest known life form,” says Luka Cicin-Sain, PhD MD, head of the Virtual Institute VISTRIE and head of a young investigator group at the HZI, “if you consider them to be a life form at all.”  For example, viruses cannot propagate. For this, they have to infect a host cell and channel in their genetic information. The host cell is then forced to produce the individual segments of the virus. In the end those building blocks assemble to form new viruses.

The immune system is capable to detect and destroy virus infected cells and thus stop the propagation of viruses. However, in the course of evolution, viruses have developed numerous mechanisms to outwit the immune system. For example, they disrupt the communication between immune cells or prevent the killing of the own host cell. “The evolution of viruses is much faster than ours. They are very well adapted to block our immune system,” says Cicin-Sain. “Therefore, viral genes are ideal tools to understand the immune system and the virus defence.”

Using CMV as the paradigmatic model pathogen, the VISTRIE researchers will study immune mechanisms and identify critical antiviral processes. CMV belongs to the family of herpes viruses and is globally widespread: Every second German is infected; in some parts of the world up to 99 per cent of the population carry CMV.  Most people do not even notice that they are infected because the virus rests within the host cells and the immune system keeps it in check. Nevertheless, CMV is anything but harmless: Especially for unborn children an infection with CMV can be a threat. “In the US every 1,000th child is being born with disabilities directly caused by a CMV infection,” says Cicin-Sain.

The scientists at the new Virtual Institute want to understand how CMV manages to outwit the immune system and evade an immune response. With this knowledge new drugs to treat CMV and other virus infections may be developed in the future. “We also expect to gain new insights into how the immune system reacts upon a virus infection,” says Cicin-Sain. “

“With this collaboration at the Virtual Institute VISTRIE we bundle the knowledge of excellent, renowned national and international virologists and shorten the way from bench to patient.” 

Virtual Institutes of the Helmholtz Assocation of German Research Centres (HGF)

Virtual Institutes combine the work of Helmholtz centres with universities and international partners. They possess their own managerial structure and are seen as one research centre with partners that are spatially divided. The HGF is funding Virtual Institutes up to five years with a maximum of 600,000 Euros per year from the “Joint Initiative for Innovation and Research” (Impuls- und Vernetzungsfonds). They can be used as preparation for bigger compounds such as Helmholtz Alliances or EU consortia.

VISTRIE („Viral Strategies for Immune Evasion“) will receive a funding sum of approximately 4.5M Euros that will be provided by HGF and participating institutions. The Virtual Institute will start its work in October 2011

The  Partners:

Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, Braunschweig, Germany

Dr. Dr. Luka Cicin-Sain, Junior Research Group “Immune aging and Chronic Infection”

Dr. Melanie Brinkmann, Junior Research Group “Viral Immune Modulation”


Medical School Hannover, Germany; Virology Department

Professor Martin Messerle, Research Group “Cytomegalovirus”


TWINCORE Centre for Expertmental and Clinical Infection Research, Hannover, Germany

Professor Ulrich Kalinke, “Experimental Infection Research”


Heinrich-Heine-University, Düsseldorf, Germany

Professor Hartmut Hengel, University Hospital Düsseldorf, Institute for Virology

Dr. Anne Halenius, University Hospital Düsseldorf, Institute for Virology


University of Rijeka, Croatia

Professor Stipan Jonjic, Medical Faculty, Department for Histology and Embryology