Interview

A year after its 10th birthday, numerous changes are on the agenda at TWINCORE. Ulrich Kalinke, Scientific Director of the Centre for Experimental and Clinical Infection Research, speaks to us about clinician scientists, big data and new research topics

"Big data is one of the big topics of the future, also for infection research"

Professor Kalinke, there are major changes being made at TWINCORE at the moment. Why is that?
In recent months, several research group leaders have taken up new positions at other research institutes. We are proud that our people have been so successful in the selection procedures! And it also offers us the opportunity to explore new topics and redevelop research areas.

One of these departures was Tim Sparwasser, who held the professorship of infection immunology. Will you reappoint this position?
Most definitely, yes! Infection immunology is of key importance for TWINCORE, just as it is for the Hannover Medical School (MHH) and the HZI. The future focus of this position, however, will be more on human immunology.

What other changes are on the agenda?
One of the aims of TWINCORE was, and still is, to support clinician scientists, i.e. doctors who care for patients and are also actively involved in research, throughout all stages of their careers. In the past, we had not succeeded in establishing a sustainable model for clinician scientists, for example in the form of a research group leader position, but we have now achieved this goal. We have recruited Patrick Behrendt to head a clinician scientist junior research group in virology, which he has already started. He will invest about half of his time in patient care and the rest of the time will be available for research. We will soon announce a similar position in the area of immunology. Furthermore, we are also working on establishing a long-term collaboration with the Institute for Medical Microbiology and Hospital Epidemiology at the MHH. I am especially pleased that the joint establishment of a junior research group has been successful: Volker Winstel started his new position at TWINCORE on 1 September. He researches the hospital germ Staphylococcus aureus, and this will also lead to some new interactions with the HZI.

What is the future of big data and personalisation at TWINCORE?
We are currently enjoying a very good funding situation, which allows us to implement a whole series of measures. I would particularly like to highlight the two professorships in the area of data sciences in bacteriology and virology, both of which are funded by the RESIST cluster of excellence. In addition, TWINCORE is also participating in a total of five applications in the big data call from the Lower Saxony Ministry of Science and Culture. Three of these projects, in the areas of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), noroviruses and immune monitoring, are being coordinated directly by TWINCORE. And of course, it is in our interest that the establishment of the new Centre for Individualised Infection Medicine (CiiM) is a success. This centre will open up new research perspectives for TWINCORE that we would otherwise never have been able to achieve alone. The CiiM will also help to improve the transfer of the latest findings to clinics, for the benefit of patients. That is why we are very happy to be accommodating the data scientists Yang Li and Cheng-Jian Xu, who have been appointed to the CiiM, at TWINCORE until the new CiiM building is completed. Through our close proximity, a wide range of collaborations have already been established with both of them. We will also welcome Markus Cornberg as a clinician scientist at an advanced career level to TWINCORE. He will lead the CiiM together with Yang Li.

How do all of these changes fit with the centre’s strategy?
The TWINCORE strategy is to align infection research topics to medical challenges and clinical observations. This means that establishing new positions for clinician scientists is very important to us and we also place great value on interdisciplinarity. Consequently, the situation with the RESIST professorships, the big data projects and the temporary residence of Yang Li and Cheng-Jian Xu at TWINCORE is very helpful for us. Without knowing that the conditions in the field of big data would develop so favourably at TWINCORE, we had already decided last year that the title of this year’s TWINCORE symposium should be “Infection Research meets Big Data”. Everyone who participated in the symposium was again able to experience for themselves the exciting new perspectives that data sciences open up for us. Big data is undoubtedly one of the big topics of the future, also for infection research.

What are these perspectives? What exactly will be researched in the new projects?
The new approaches from the field of data sciences allow us to better understand extremely complex systems. For example, it enables us to analyse extensive data sets from patient cohorts with RSV or norovirus infections. At the same time, we can also merge very different data sets, and we are currently working on this in the immune classification of some individuals. In addition to information about individual types of immune cells, these new approaches can also take into account a diverse range of clinical parameters. The aim of this work is to obtain an improved understanding of how the human immune system functions. Lastly, the new approaches also enable the investigation of expression profiles of individual cells. We are currently investigating how human dendritic cells react to stimulation with the human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) on the single-cell level. We can expect many surprises in the course of these investigations.

About RESIST:

In the RESIST (Resolving Infection Susceptibility) excellence cluster, researchers from a total of 40 groups of TWINCORE, HZI, MHH and three other institutions aim to find out why certain patient groups are more susceptible to infections than others. The cluster finances two professorships at TWINCORE: the unfilled W1/W2 professorship "Integrative Virus-Host Bioinformatics" at the Institute for Experimental Virology and the W2 professorship "Systems Biology of Microbial Communities" at the Institute for Molecular Bacteriology, for which Marco Galardini was appointed by Boston University.

Author: Jan Grabowski

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