To address the coronavirus pandemic, we need to find solutions that go far beyond health research. The crisis has highlighted the vulnerability of our critical infrastructure as well as the dependencies that exist within global supply chains. Since January 2020, Helmholtz scientists have been studying the spread of the coronavirus and working to develop drugs and therapeutic agents to fight COVID-19. Through its Helmholtz-wide campaign “The Coronavirus Pandemic: Insight, Coping, and Prevention,” the Helmholtz Association is now taking the next step: In interdisciplinary collaborative projects, experts from all six Helmholtz research fields are devising holistic strategies and solutions to address and manage the pandemic.
Model system for future pandemics
The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) is involved in the project “Virological and Immunological Determinants of COVID-19 Pathogenesis – Lessons for Preparing for Future Pandemics (CoViPa)” through the research labs of Dr. Kathrin de la Rosa and Professor Markus Landthaler. In the project, researchers from seven Helmholtz Centers are working closely with universities and industry partners. Together, they want to investigate the mechanisms of the disease process, find targeted strategies to fight the virus and analyze the risk of other pathogens making the leap from animals to humans.
The German Cancer Research Center in the Helmholtz Association (DKFZ) is coordinating the project. “We see SARS-CoV-2 as a model system for future pandemics caused by similar pathogens. Based on this system, we want to use immunological and virological analyses to gain insights into the disease mechanisms in order to develop preventive measures. We will also use robotics and high-throughput data analyses to be better prepared for future pandemic outbreaks and to better assess the risks posed by a pandemic,” says Professor Ralf Bartenschlager of the DKFZ. He and virologist Professor Ulrike Protzer from Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health (HMGU) serve as the scientific spokespersons for CoViPa.
Fighting viruses with robots and AI
“We are particularly interested in why some people develop less protective antibodies after COVID-19 disease or vaccination against the virus,” says MDC researcher Kathrin de la Rosa. “We want to understand these mechanisms in order to find new ways to achieve an even more efficient and possibly longer-lasting immune response.” Her research group is teaming up with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and will develop intelligent robotic systems in collaboration with Dr. Daniel Leidner of DLR in Wessling near Munich and Professor Hedda Wardemann of the DKFZ in Heidelberg. Should a pandemic with even more dangerous viruses occur in the future, it would still be possible to study them by combining immunological assays with robotics and artificial intelligence.
In addition, MDC researcher Markus Landthaler and his colleague Professor Luka Cicin-Sain from the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig will analyze which of the genes responsible for regulating immune system cells play a role in SARS-CoV-2 infection and the augmented immune response in COVID-19. “To do this, we will use the most advanced sequencing technologies and analytical methods. This will allow us to study the changes that occur in individual cells of the immune system, lung tissue and blood vessels,” says Landthaler. They also want to identify therapeutic agents that suppress the inflammatory response in the course of SARS-CoV-2 infection.
The second project, “Airborne Transmission of the SARS Coronavirus – From Basic Research to Efficient Air Cleaning Systems (CORAERO)”, focuses on investigating and preventing virus transmission through aerosols and droplets. Experts from medicine, biology, physics, chemistry, materials science, engineering, and social sciences are working together to develop technologies to stop the spread of viruses. If they can be used in schools, businesses, mass transit and public places, such technologies might prevent stringent measures such as school closures in the future.
Incorporating practical applications from the start
The Helmholtz-wide campaign is financed by the Initiative and Networking Fund. “We are utilizing the full strength of our research to better understand and overcome the current coronavirus pandemic and prevent other pandemics and similar challenges in the future,” says Otmar D. Wiestler, President of the Helmholtz Association. “Our aim is to find out how we as a society can prepare for such crisis situations. This can only be achieved through interdisciplinary, strategically-oriented approaches that incorporate practical applications from day one.”
A core element of the collaborative projects is an integrated transfer strategy: Societal stakeholders are involved in developing solution-focused questions and in implementing the research project from the very beginning. An interdisciplinary panel of experts from virology, natural sciences, engineering, innovation management and business selected the two projects CoViPa and CORAERO for funding from a total of eleven proposals.
Portrait of Kathrin de la Rosa: “”