The HZI and the University of Würzburg get new institute for infection research off the ground

The Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based infection research addresses a new research field and aims for novel therapeutic approaches

Heinz_Vogel_HIRI.jpgProf. Dirk Heinz (links), wissenschaftlicher Geschäftsführer des HZI, und Prof. Jörg Vogel, künftiger Gründungsdirektor des neuen Helmholtz-Instituts für RNA-basierte Infektionsforschung © HZI, JMUThe Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig and the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) are going to jointly establish a new Helmholtz institute headquartered in Würzburg. This has been decided in a resolution of the Senate of the Helmholtz Association. The new Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research (HIRI) will focus on so-called ribonucleic acids (RNAs) and their role in infection processes. RNAs are thought to have enormous potential as target for medications and as therapeutic agents as well. This potential is to be tapped now by new technologies.

"I am very happy that the senate agreed to establish the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research," says Prof Dirk Heinz, who is the Scientific Director of the HZI. "The new institute allows us to address a new field of research that holds much innovation potential for new diagnostics and therapies of infectious diseases." In addition, Heinz praised the good cooperation with the JMU in the preparatory phase of the HIRI.

The planning of the HIRI commenced as early as in 2014 and the final concept received excellent ratings by an international expert panel in late May of this year. Now that the Senate of the Helmholtz Association agreed to the implementation of the HIRI at the closest possible date, the Supervisory Board needs to rule on the establishment of the institute in November. The German federal state of Bavaria already promised significant financial contributions: "We ear-marked €46 million in funding for the establishment phase of the institute in the Bavarian budget, because we are absolutely confident in the project. It is very gratifying to me to see that this assessment was shared by the high-level selection committee," says Ilse Aigner, the Bavarian Minister of Economy and Technology. Another €4.9 million in funding for large-scale equipment may be obtained from the federal government.

"The significance of RNA molecules in infection processes has been underestimated until recently. We now know that RNAs interact with many molecules of the host cell and the pathogen. We aim to investigate these interactions in more detail by applying the latest technologies from 2017 at the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research, and use this approach, e.g., to identify new target structures for therapies," says Prof Jörg Vogel from the JMU, who is the designated founding director of the HIRI.

Initially, four research areas, embedded in Helmholtz's "Infection Research" programme, will be established at the HIRI:

  • RNA-based analysis of bacterial infections
  • RNA-based analysis of viral infections
  • RNA-based analysis of the immune defence
  • specific application of RNA molecules, for example as therapeutic agents

The participating institutions expect the pooling of their expertise upon the establishment of the HIRI to lead to synergistic effects and novel applications. The research at the HIRI is to make a significant contribution to a better understanding of infections. The newly gathered knowledge can then be utilised for new applications in prophylaxis and therapy on the strength of the combined translational expertise of the two partners.

"We initiated the Helmholtz institute to be able to address important topics of the future jointly and sustained in a close cooperation with a university," says Otmar D. Wiestler, the President of the Helmholtz Association. "During the past years, they proved to be an excellent model for this aim. The HIRI will be another powerful example of this in the field of infection research. I am confident that it will gain significance far beyond the realm of infection research."

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