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Professor Dr Sandra Ciesek Esteemed Corona Expert

© Katrin Binner

Prof Ciesek, in addition to your work as a virologist, you also act as co-spokesperson for the LOEWE research cluster CoroPan, which has been funded since January of last year. What do you aim to achieve with the project?

As part of CoroPan, we are working on various coronaviruses, not just SARS-CoV-2. From a virological point of view, coronaviruses are a virus family with high potential to trigger further pandemics in the future. After SARS 2002/2003 and MERS, COVID-19 was already the third pandemic triggered by a coronavirus - albeit on a different scale. One goal of CoroPan is therefore to better understand the coronavirus family and, for example, to research specific similarities between these viruses in order to find therapeutic targets that are as effective as possible against many or, in the best case, all coronaviruses. After all, there are hundreds of other coronaviruses in the animal kingdom that could jump over to us humans. With this project, we would therefore like to contribute to a better understanding of this virus family and prepare specifically for possible further pandemics triggered by coronaviruses.  

When did you realise that you wanted to become a virologist and why?

I didn't realise it for a long time. After graduating from high school, I first studied human medicine according to the traditional route, then completed my specialist training as a gastroenterologist in Hanover - a field that involves direct patient care. Since completing my doctoral thesis, I have conducted parallel research on hepatitis viruses in the laboratory and in 2016 the opportunity arose to switch to a W2 professorship in virology. The advantages were obvious: more research freedom and a better work-life balance - at least until the pandemic hit. As a clinician, it is often not easy to conduct basic research at an internationally competitive level alongside clinical work while preferably not spilling into after-hours and weekend.   

During the corona pandemic, you became one of the leading experts on SARS-Cov-2 and were honoured with the Federal Cross of Merit First Class for "your pioneering scientific commitment in the context of the corona pandemic". What was that like for you?

First of all, it's a great honour to have my personal and scientific achievements recognised in this way. It's also great that so many people obviously campaigned for me to receive this award. It shows that although you have invested a lot privately and professionally, these activities are appreciated by the public. On the other hand, you immediately think about the negative impact the honour could have. In addition to congratulations, my colleagues and I still receive hostility in response to such announcements. It's a shame that this tarnishes the joy.  

Looking back on the coronavirus pandemic, is there anything you would do differently today or with regard to future pandemics?

To begin with, this pandemic with a previously unknown pathogen was a major challenge for virology and it is very positive to mention that the knowledge gained about this pathogen was enormous, especially at the beginning. Germany was able to make decisive contributions to the development of tests and vaccines. Of course, there were also things that we could have done better, but in hindsight you always have to consider the state of knowledge at the time. In my field of virology, we should have invested more in basic research of pandemic pathogens after the SARS pandemic in 2002/2003 and in the development of antiviral substances. We virologists are very good at assessing which viruses have pandemic potential. And we know that there will be more pandemics in the future. But my overall impression is that Germany is not such a leader in disease prevention. It also costs a lot of money without knowing exactly when and whether we will need an antiviral substance or certain data on a pathogen and its spread. The LOEWE funding for CoroPan is a positive signal here.  

What do you think makes LOEWE research funding so valuable?

I think LOEWE research funding makes Hessen particularly attractive for scientists. On the one hand, there are the LOEWE top professorships, so that Goethe University, for example, recently appointed Prof Mathias Munschauer, an extremely talented scientist and ERC grant winner from Würzburg, to a W2 professorship at my institute. I am sure that this would not have been possible without the support of LOEWE research funding. On the other hand, the LOEWE Centres and Clusters such as CoroPan help the Hessian universities to network better and thus have better chances of jointly applying to the DFG for collaborative research projects. The multi-year funding within the framework of a LOEWE Cluster prepares us scientists optimally for such collaborative research proposals, because we not only generate joint preliminary work, but can also grow together as colleagues.

Virologist, corona expert, LOEWE professor - now honoured with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany - with respect, how do you manage it all?

My day also only has 24 hours and I have the feeling that I don't manage to do a lot of things that I really should be doing. Especially during the pandemic, a lot of things have fallen through the cracks. But I have a great team that supports me. And to balance things out, I do a lot of sport whenever possible – swimming and running.

About the Person

  • Co-spokesperson of the LOEWE Cluster CoroPan
  •  Director of the Institute for Medical Virology at the University Hospital Frankfurt am Main
  • Professor of Medical Virology at Goethe University Frankfurt

Published in ProLOEWE NEWS

Issue 01.2024 / March


In the first issue of the year, you can expect a wide variety of topics from LOEWE's excellent research: from agriculture and species conservation to women in science and human decisions in artificial intelligence to upcoming events by LOEWE-FCI and SYNMIKRO and the election of the International Mollusk of the Year 2024, which is organised and accompanied by LOEWE-TBG.

ProLOEWE faces

Prof Dr Sandra Ciesek, also LOEWE top professor and co-spokesperson of LOEWE-CoroPan, is Director of the Institute of Medical Virology at Frankfurt University Hospital and was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit First Class for her coronavirus research last year.