Lab image: A person pipetting cell cultures

Cell cultures needed for experiments with pathogens are pipetted in the laboratory. ©Leibniz-HKI, Anna Schroll

January 15, 2021: Alliance to develop a new therapeutic approach against COVID-19

Friday, 15. January 2021

Under the direction of Prof. Gülsah Gabriel, the Heinrich Pette Institute, Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology (HPI) is involved in a transregional research project launched in January 2021 to develop a targeted therapy against SARS-CoV-2. It is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) within the InfectControl consortium with around 2.3 million euros. The participating institutions from Jena, Würzburg and Hamburg are pursuing a promising approach with which the virus can be eliminated by the immune system in a targeted manner.

We would all like to see an end to the pandemic as quickly as possible. Therefore, in addition to preventive measures such as vaccination campaigns and contact reductions, it is equally important to develop effective therapies and drugs against SARS-CoV-2 as quickly as possible. To date, there are only a few promising therapeutic approaches.

Combined forces

Scientists from the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology - Hans Knöll Institute - (Leibniz-HKI), Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Julius Maximilian University Würzburg and the Heinrich Pette Institute, Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology in Hamburg combine their expertise in drug development, infectious medicine and virology to jointly contribute to the management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The aim of the project is to develop a novel therapeutic approach for SARS-CoV-2 infections. The knowledge gained should also contribute to the rapid development of new therapeutics in the event of possible future outbreaks of infection with other pathogens.

Immune system support

The scientists want to make the human immune system recognize the virus particles independently and eliminate them in a targeted manner: To do this, they take advantage of the highly specific interaction between virus and human cell: According to the lock-and-key principle, a surface protein - the so-called spike protein - of the SARS coronavirus-2 interacts with receptors of human cells. Due to its small size and the fact that it is absorbed into the cell interior, human immune cells, the so-called phagocytes, cannot take up the virus and destroy it.

Axel Brakhage is spokesman for InfectControl and director of the Leibniz-HKI. "We are developing customized aggregates that mimic the receptor of the human cell. Our hope is that the viruses will eventually bind to the artificial receptor and not to the human cell. This would allow the cells of the immune system to recognize the viruses and eliminate them on their own," says the molecular biologist, who also holds a chair at the University of Jena.  

Chemist Florian Kloß adds: "We will analyze the potential new active substances for functionality and tolerability through laboratory tests and examine possibilities for therapeutic use." He heads the Antiinfectives Transfer Group at Leibniz-HKI and, together with his team, is dedicated to the preclinical and early clinical development of promising compounds.

"The basis of the tailored aggregates are synthetic macromolecules decorated with the receptor units. These macromolecules are subsequently formulated into nanoparticles. With the receptor units on the surface, the particles are ready to bind the viruses to them," explains Ulrich S. Schubert, a chemist and materials scientist at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena. He is the spokesman for the DFG's collaborative research center "PolyTarget," which focuses on new pharmaceutical polymers and innovative nanoparticles for personalized nanomedicine.

Würzburg virologist Simone Backes and immunologist Georg Gasteiger, head of the Max Planck Research Group for Systems Immunology at the Julius Maximilians University of Würzburg, will then investigate whether the agents developed at Leibniz-HKI can prevent coronavirus infection: They want to find out whether the artificial aggregates actually mark the coronaviruses and make them visible for attack by the human immune system.

"In the project, we will additionally evaluate the antiviral properties of the new agents against SARS-CoV-2 in a human lung model," adds Gülsah Gabriel. She heads the research department "Viral Zoonoses - One Health" at the Heinrich Pette Institute, Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology in Hamburg. Together with her team, she investigates the molecular mechanisms of virus transmission between different species as well as the pathogenesis of zoonotic viruses.

InfectControl – combined forces against infections

The InfectControl research network brings together partners from industry, science and society to jointly develop new strategies for combating infectious diseases. The research projects of the consortium, which is funded by the BMBF's Twenty20 - Partnership for Innovation program, transcend the boundaries of traditional disciplines and consistently consider infections according to the One Health approach. An important research focus of InfectControl is medical research and care. Researchers in the network are looking for new active agents and are dedicated to improving the transfer of basic research to industry.