Professor Dr Stephan Becker A race against the viruses
Professor Becker, you have been the spokesperson for the DRUID LOEWE Centre since 2020, but were part of the original team that set it up. How did the idea arise of establishing a centre to focus on tropical diseases here in Hesse of all places?
There are a considerable number of research groups in Hesse that focus on neglected tropical pathogens, particularly parasites. Prof. Katja Becker, the current President of the DFG (the German Research Foundation), launched the initiative in 2013-2014 to bring together these groups to develop a common research programme.
A major outbreak of the ebola virus took place in West Africa at about the same time and virologists from the Philipps University in Marburg were involved in containing it. The outbreak caused considerable concern in the region, but also around the globe and attracted attention to tropical infectious diseases on the part of the general public and politicians.
The establishment of DRUID then involved amalgamating the academic expertise that was available in Hesse to powerfully combat neglected tropical diseases.
The major focus of your research work is on pure research into viruses and you are head of the “Emerging infections” department at the DZIF (the German Centre for Infection Research), which was founded in 2011. Can you tell us something about your work?
My research work mainly focuses on viruses that unexpectedly cause outbreaks. They are either new or are viruses that are familiar to people, cause sporadic outbreaks and then disappear again, only to reappear just as unexpectedly. These viruses are called “emerging viruses“. There are historical reasons for my interest in these pathogens too: the outbreak of a fatal infectious disease, the origin of which was initially not known, occurred here in Marburg in 1967; it was, however, clearly transferred from African green long-tailed monkeys to human beings. Monkeys were required to make the vaccine at that time. Virologists from Marburg, together with colleagues from all over Germany, finally identified the pathogen, which was then named the ‘Marburg virus’ after the place where it was discovered. The Marburg Institute of Virology has developed into a centre of excellence for work on these kinds of tropical viruses since that time. Other prominent examples of these kinds of viruses are the ebola virus, but naturally the SARS Covid-19 virus too, which has triggered the coronavirus pandemic. The common factor in all these viruses is that they are transferred from animals to human beings and trigger serious infections, while they are often not dangerous to the host animals. We are developing vaccines and medicines in the DZIF’s “Emerging infections” department, but also new diagnostic methods to combat emerging viruses. We were involved, for example, in developing a vaccine against the ebola virus and are developing vaccines against the MERS coronavirus, which is transferred from camels to human beings and occurs in Saudi Arabia.
The Hesse research support programme known as LOEWE has existed since 2008; what do you think has been achieved through this unique format for pure research in Germany, which would not have been possible otherwise?
The abbreviation “LOEWE”* includes the term “excellence” and that is both the description and challenge for the research world in the federal state of Hesse. I believe that the many projects being supported by LOEWE are firstly a testimony to the huge interest shown by research scientists in Hesse to submit to an intensive peer review process in order to allow their research ideas to become reality. It is also an outstanding opportunity for scientists in Hesse to network with each other – there are a huge number of LOEWE clusters, in which various universities in Hesse are involved. Finally, LOEWE supports connectivity with the national, European and international academic world. At the same time, the LOEWE programme supports steps that must take place to transfer the results of pure research into the real applied world so that it is possible to improve people’s lives. To stay in my field, this may involve vaccines against infectious diseases or better diagnostic methods or new ways of developing medicines more quickly. The DRUID LOEWE Centre involves a large number of research scientists, for example, who can only fully develop their ideas in close cooperation with other DRUID partners and their technological and academic expertise.
Do you dare to make a forecast about March 2023, three years after the first Covid-19 cases in Germany?
The picture provided by the crystal ball is always ambiguous and blurred, but we can predict with relative certainty that we should have overcome the worst consequences of the pandemic in just over a year from now. Thanks to the extremely rapid development of new vaccine technologies during the last two years, it is possible to adapt the existing vaccines to new variants of Covid-19 quickly. This will be necessary, because the virus will probably continue to develop new variants as soon as most people on planet earth have been vaccinated or have recovered from the disease – and current vaccines will no longer cover these variants. On the other hand, there will be new effective medicines and we will then enter a phase that can be best compared with the seasonal occurrence of influenza. The Covid-19 virus will not have disappeared, but we will be able to live with it in a far better way. To achieve this state, there is an urgent need to improve people’s readiness to be vaccinated and maintain this at a high level.
How do you think the world will develop during the next 100 years in the light of the first pandemic that most of us have experienced in the form of Covid-19 – and in terms of the research work at LOEWE DRUID?
I believe that pandemics will be part of our everyday lives. Our world is so closely networked that the spread of infectious diseases, particularly those that are transmitted through the air, may be suppressed in democratic societies, but cannot be completely halted. We are also seeing that travel restrictions at best only delay their spread. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that the clock can be turned back on globalisation – and that is not what we want either. We therefore need to find ways of living with pandemics. Some approaches are already becoming clear in my field. Medicines and vaccines are being developed, which are also effective in combatting several related coronaviruses. For example, this involves exploiting similarities between the viruses in the enzymes, which multiply the genome, in order to develop an inhibitor against many coronaviruses. If a new coronavirus occurs, it is then highly probable that it will also be restricted by the pan-coronavirus inhibitor.
As a scientist, you have a profession that demands a great deal from you and where it is often unclear whether it will actually be possible to achieve the goals that have been set in terms of results – what continues to motivate you?
What makes the profession of a scientist so special is the opportunity of allowing your curiosity to explore situations without any restrictions and continually consider new approaches to possibly resolving a research issue; you can then follow up the questions that arise from the solution and “get to the bottom of things”. As far as I am concerned, I can also use the expertise that is gained from research to seek to find specific solutions to real problems. For example, we can become involved in developing therapies for new infectious diseases quickly or create the conditions so that we are able to act quickly in pandemic situations. It is essential for us, for instance, to keep our laboratory infrastructure, which involves BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs, operational and productive to conduct research into new and possibly very dangerous viruses. This also involves supporting the special, lengthy training of technical and academic personnel and promoting this so that we are able to respond to new challenges in an extremely short time.
* LOEWE stands for “Landes-Offensive zur Entwicklung Wissenschaftlich-ökonomischer Exzellenz” (State Offensive to Develop Academic/Economic Excellence).
Published in ProLOEWE NEWS
Issue 3.2021/ December
In this issue of ProLOEWE-NEWS we present two new lecture series for the winter semester 2021/2022 of the LOEWE focus areas Religious Positioning and Architectures of Ordering, which can also be attended online. Also, a positive conclusion as a result of the evaluation of focus groups in research on sustainable mobility within the LOEWE priority IDG, an article on the first international workshop on data storage in molecular media and more.
A portrait of Professor Dr Stephan Becker, Director of the Institute of Virology at Philipps-Universität Marburg and spokesperson for the LOEWE Centre DRUID.