Experimental Virology

Viruses are tiny vehicles that transport biological information to reprogram the functions of human, animal, or plant cells in order to replicate. So-called "enveloped" viruses consist of only one layer of proteins, are filled with genetic material, and are surrounded by a thin shell of lipids in which viral proteins are embedded. Even though viruses are tiny and have a simple build, viral pathogens such as the hepatitis C virus (HCV), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and SARS-CoV-2 have the potential to threaten the health of millions of people.
Here at the Institute for Experimental Virology, we focus on fundamental and translational RNA virus research. Our research groups combine the expertise of molecular and cell biological approaches with computational methods to help elucidate viral replication mechanisms to develop new therapeutic and preventive strategies.

Prof Dr Thomas Pietschmann


Prof Dr Thomas Pietschmann
Research Group Leader

Our Research

Overview of our key projects. Figure was partially created with BioRender.com and the thenounproject.com.

Overview of our key projects:

  • a. Identification of elite neutralizers in HCV infections and establishment of an HCV-permissive animal model to aid in the development of an HCV vaccine. The HCV vaccine is being developed using a multi-platform strategy.
  • b. Identifying modifiers of RSV disease severity in infants without pre-diseases to aid us in the identification of genetic variants and/or quantitative biomarkers that will predict the risk for severe RSV disease. Moreover, we utilize drug repurposing libraries to identify novel drug targets against RSV. As an example, we have successfully identified Lonafarnib as a RSV fusion inhibitor using this method.
  • c. Screening of multiple libraries composed of licensed drugs for the discovery of host-targeting antivirals. Ultimately, we aim to identify broad-spectrum coronavirus antivirals in light of pandemic preparedness.
HCV infected human liver cell
HCV infected human liver cell (green, so-called lidid droplets; red, HCV core protein; blue, cell nuclei)

Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) Research

According to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO), around 58 million people are chronically infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV). As a result of the chronic infection, many patients develop inflammation of the liver (hepatitis), which can damage the function of the organ and lead to fibrosis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer. Fortunately, chronic hepatitis C is now very treatable with combination therapy. However, major challenges remain: The vast majority of HCV-infected individuals are undiagnosed and remain undetected due to the usually slow progression of the disease. In addition, a drug cure does not protect against re-infection with HCV. Up to 1.5 million people become newly infected with the virus every year. Therefore, developing a prophylactic vaccine to limit viral transmission and ensure treatment success remains crucial.

We investigate the principles responsible for immune protection against HCV, concentrating primarily on antibody-mediated mechanisms. We examine the strategies used by viruses to evade the immune response and develop cell culture and animal models to test the efficacy of vaccine candidates. These systems are used to source proprietary vaccine candidates for clinical development. 

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) research 

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), like HCV, has a worldwide distribution. In young healthy adults, an RSV infection usually presents as a mild cold. However, RSV can also cause severe lower respiratory tract infections. Young children, immunocompromised patients such as transplant recipients, and adults >60 years of age are particularly at risk. Worldwide, RSV causes alone 33.4 million cases of acute lower respiratory tract infections in young children and between 53,000 and 199,000 associated deaths per year. Why some children develop particularly severe courses of disease is not well understood. Currently, only a few treatment options are available. Recently two vaccines were approved for individuals aged 60 and older for the prevention of lower respiratory tract disease caused by RSV and one of them is additionally lisenced for vaccination of pregnant women.

Our research focuses on the principles responsible for severe RSV infections in young children in order to develop diagnostic methods to better protect these particularly susceptible children. In addition, we investigate direct acting antiviral inhibitors against RSV. 

Pandemic Preparedness

Up until mid-2023, the pandemic COVID-19 agent, SARS-CoV-2, had killed almost 7 million people worldwide. Though several vaccines are available, only a few treatment options for treating SARS-CoV-2 infections are available. In light of pandemic preparedness, we anticipate other coronaviruses will transmit to humans in the future. Therefore, we are developing antiviral molecules that are effective against a plethora of various coronaviruses.

For information on current projects of the research group Experimental Virology please visit the TWINCORE website.