Thomas Pietschmann: “The pandemic shows us how effective cooperative research can be”

A conversation about the direction of research at the HZI with Prof Thomas Pietschmann, who is the head of the "Experimental Virology" department at the HZI and director of the Experimental Virology Institute at the TWINCORE - Centre for Experimental and Clinical Infection Research

The Helmholtz Association conducts its research in the form of programmes that provide the framework for the activities of the individual Helmholtz Centres. The HZI is committed to the “Infection Research” programme. What are the priorities and strategic goals of the HZI?
Our primary mission is to conduct research into solutions for major issues in our society. In order to be effective in our efforts, there are, in my view, three strategic goals that we strive to achieve. The first of these is digitalisation: Applying the new technologies, we are collecting data volumes on unprecedented scales. One key to success is to make optimal use of this data and apply it to understand infection processes on a holistic level. Cooperation - internally, externally as well as internationally - is the second of my strategic goals. Clever networking allows us to be more effective. The third topic in my sight is development. Building on strong and deep-rooted basic research, we can achieve a greater impact in applications and value creation by strengthening our competence in the area of development. Microbiota research is one good example of a multi-faceted field of research at the HZI in which the strategic goals play an important role: To name just one example, we are learning ever more about how incredibly diverse and complex the colonisation of our gut is as it involves a plethora of different bacteria and bacteriophages that coexist and interact with us as their hosts to shape our health. It is important here not only to investigate who dwells there, but also who communicates with whom and who displaces whom. What are the mechanisms through which this affects our health, our immune system, and under which conditions does this get out of hand?

Which research topics specifically is the HZI tackling?
We are pursuing questions of antimicrobial resistance at full tilt; this includes basic research, drug discovery and development, and new diagnostic methods for relevant resistant bacteria, for example pseudomonads. We are also investigating how microbiota affect our health and what factors cause severe courses of infection. In the long-term, we aim to demonstrate new ways of prevention and therapy and take steps toward an individualised infection medicine. Working jointly with several HZI groups, I am working on a candidate vaccine against hepatitis C, which we are profiling on a preclinical level for the transition to clinical studies. Working innovatively at the HIRI, we aim to develop a novel understanding of how RNA molecules control infections. Our epidemiologists are developing innovative systems for surveillance and management of infection outbreaks. This makes them important partners for the experts at the newly founded HIOH, where the influencing factors that promote the emergence of new or resistant pathogens will be researched on a holistic level. The pandemic has shown us the great significance of this research and has also led many HZI teams to work intensively on SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory viruses. 

What are the advantages of programmatic research in this regard?
The biggest advantage of programmatic research is that you do your research collaboratively. The research groups do not just act as individual players, but combine their expertise to find solutions for major and complex issues. This allows us to garner much more critical mass behind important projects. It also makes it easier to bring together many disciplines, which is often required to be able to do research effectively due to the complexity of projects and today’s technologies. By doing both, one achieves more depth and can have greater impact to attain relevant goals for our society.

The HZI is the only Helmholtz Centre that is actively involved in the Infection Research programme. Does that make it more difficult to build up critical mass?
We have been fortunate in that we have been able to grow in a targeted manner and establish new institutes in recent years. This makes us more powerful in the topics we have sought out: for example, anti-infectives research, molecular diagnostics, epidemiology, vaccine research on selected pathogens - and always starting from strong basic research. But there are also limitations in programmatic research: You are not quite as independent because they are committed to the contents of a programme. In addition, management becomes more complex, because many people have to approach each other cooperatively and work together. Nevertheless, I am certain that strong and cleverly networked collaborative research is an essential key to solving the major challenges in the field of infections. How quickly and successfully the HZI can respond was demonstrated nicely by the Covid-19 pandemic. That was very impressive for me and, in my view, it is because the HZI has a good spectrum of expertise resident. Starting with the Epidemiology, which was immediately able to make relevant contributions to the management of the pandemic. Next in line is single cell analysis at the HIRI - a breakthrough technology that has contributed to the understanding of the pathophysiology. In addition, HZI teams are making important contributions to the development of diagnostic methods, antibodies and agents against the virus. Not to forget the tremendous will to make a difference on the part of everyone involved.

Especially in these times of the pandemic accusations have been voiced that science is doing only what politicians tell it to do. What is your view on this criticism?
I do not share this opinion at all. In Germany, we have a great deal of freedom in the sciences, in particular at the universities, but also in-house. There are many funding instruments through which you can develop your own creative concept and ask for funding. This gives us many opportunities to do our research freely. Likewise, our research programme was developed by us - and evaluated by reviewers, of course. But we were able to select ourselves where we want to, and can be, strong.

Established in 2021, the Programme Board is a new body at the HZI that is chaired by you as the programme spokesperson. Was the founding of the Board necessary due to the refocus on SARS-CoV-2?
The founding of the Board is not directly related to the pandemic, but rather to the growth of our programme and of the HZI and all its bodies - the family members, as I like to call the institutes. Ultimately, our Scientific Director Dirk Heinz gave the impetus to reorganise our bodies and proposed the Programme Board as a new scientific body that takes care of the management of the research programme. Personally, I think this is a smart move. For all groups to work together optimally, there is a need for coordination and a regular flow of information. The Programme Board is tasked to provide this and accompany the process over the years to make sure the left leg does not go in one direction and the right leg in another. We look where we can give impulses, help with appointments and have an advisory function for the directorate. This transports the notions of the researchers in terms of how the programme is to develop. In order to achieve the greatest possible exchange, the Programme Board includes not only the topic spokespersons but also the spokespersons of the Research Foci, who are in permanent exchange with the heads of the research groups. Furthermore, in addition to Executive Management, the institute directors of our sites are also present as guests and can therefore contribute in an advisory function on how we develop the research. This is important to make sure that the interests of the institutes can be taken into account. This gives us an independent body that acts as a representative of the interests of research and conveys them to the directorate. I think this separation of tasks is both good and important.

What topics are you currently discussing?
The Programme Board is dedicated to the contents of research, strategic development, initiation of collaborations and also the development of instruments to promote research. For example, we chaperoned the Project Call “Creativity-Cooperativity-Fund”, an in-house funding instrument of the HZI. We discussed, deliberated and voted on how this Call should be structured. Accordingly, we have now launched ten creative and innovative projects, which will be carried out as collaborations between research groups of the HZI and its sites in order to strengthen the HZI family. Next, we will discuss our research programme internally in a mini-symposium. On this occasion, we would like to present so-called flagship projects. These are projects in which different experts meet in an interdisciplinary scenario and achieve something that is bigger than its parts. One example is the collaboration for the elucidation of the principles underlying the different susceptibility of people to infections. By working together, we can understand the mechanisms more deeply and more comprehensively and, in the long term, help to develop new diagnostic and preventive measures. We aim to increase the visibility of these projects and discuss them to give other experts a forum to join in. This also motivates people to join forces in other areas in order to achieve more together.

How do you see the future of infection research?
It is important to have a broad spectrum in research funding, ranging from programmatic research to research in touch with industry and funding for individualists across universities as well as university medicine, where doctors conduct research directly on patients. We need this portfolio, but we need to improve our networking. We can still grow in building more capacity for development, in generating more collaboration and transition points with industry partners, and in promoting international collaborations. Here, in particular, is where the Covid-19 pandemic has shown how effective and successful collaborative research can be - and in a very short time - when the right people come together to form larger units.

Interview: Andreas Fischer

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Dr Andreas Fischer

Science Editor (deputy Spokesperson)

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