Working together to understand the tricks of viruses

Virus experts from around the world meet for the third time at the VISTRIE symposium at the HZI



The strong influenza epidemic in the past winter and the Ebola-Epidemic in West Africa showed that there still is a large need for research in virology. But the focus also needs to be on less well-known viral infections. For example, the interaction between Viruses and the immune system needs to be understood better. This is the focus of the international research partnership "Viral Strategies of Immune Evasion" (VISTRIE). Leading researchers from throughout the world are discussing the current state of research at the VISTRIE symposium at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig on 22 May 2015. The conference also is an opportunity for inspired discussions and networking, especially for junior scientist.

In the past winter, there was a major public discussion concerning the insufficiently effective influenza vaccine. But the influenza virus is not the only virus researchers do not understand well enough. There are many other viral infections for which there are neither safe therapies, nor effective vaccinations available. These may not be in the focus of the public as much, but it is still important to research them. For example the cytomegalovirus is the most common cause of infections during pregnancy and has life-long corollaries for the children. Although hardly known to the public, an estimated 40,000 people in Germany are afflicted. There currently is no treatment procedure since the virus has too many tricks up its sleeve for the human immune system and adapts too well.

Especially in the case of such well-adapting pathogens, the development of new medications calls mainly for one element: Basic research. "We need to understand better how Viruses make us ill and why our immune system sometimes cannot cope," says Prof Luka Cicin-Sain, who is the director of the junior research group, "Immune Aging and Chronic Infections" at the HZI and organises the symposium.

Usually our immune system manages to protect us from the ingress of bacteria and Viruses. But some pathogens succeed in bypassing the sophisticated defence system. In the course of thousands of years, many Viruses found ways that help them hide in our bodies or to manipulate our body cells. "These are the mechanisms which our research addresses. Once we understand the tricks of the Viruses in detail, we will be able to develop agents against them," says Cicin-Sain.

Each virus seems to have its own strategy for escaping the immune system. Herpes viruses, such as, e.g., the cytomegalovirus, infiltrate their DNA into the human body and often remain dormant for years before they begin to reproduce and become harmful. The Influenza virus uses continuous mutation to change its appearance and is therefore difficult to detect by our defence cells. Hepatitis C Viruses interfere with the communication between the cells or directly attack the effector cells, such as B- and T-cells to prevent their function.

However, despite the many differences, Viruses have some features in common as well. "This is why we as virologists need to combine our know-how and exchange information. This is how we learn best from each other and can develop our research consistently," says Cicin-Sain. The VISTRIE symposium is an ideal opportunity for this purpose. Experts from the USA, Canada and the United Kingdom will join leading German researchers and present lectures on issues such as influenza, cytomegaly and Hepatitis. Other topics will be new trends and insights in vaccinations and Host-pathogen relationships. The junior scientists are part of the symposium as well and will present their research at poster sessions.

Media representatives are cordially invited to attend the discussion as well as the lectures. In addition to the official programme, there will be plenty of opportunity for discussion and interviews with the scientists in attendance. The Press and Communication department of the HZI will be glad to schedule appointments with the experts for you.

For further information about the symposium and a detailed programme, please visit here