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Infection Biology Unit

Photo of the team of the Infection Biology Unit

Influenza viruses pose a global health threat, particularly to infants and the elderly. The viruses constantly change. As a consequence, vaccines have to be constantly adapted and therapeutics may cease to be effective. Therefore, we seek to develop novel influenza therapies. One focus of our work is on the host cell protease TMPRSS2 since we obtained evidence that TMPRSS2 depend on the protease for acquisition of infectivity and spread in the host. Moreover, we are investigating how defective interfering particles (DIPs) can be generated in the absence of infectious virus and how DIPs inhibit influenza virus infection.

Emerging viruses that are transmitted from animals to humans may cause severe disease. Outbreaks frequently occur abroad but the responsible viruses might be imported into Germany due to infected travelers. We are investigating how emerging viruses interact with host cells and cause disease. A recently started project focuses on lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV). LCMV is related to the highly pathogenic Lassa virus, circulates globally and is responsible for outbreaks of lethal hepatitis in marmoset colonies. Moreover, LCMV may cause severe disease in immunosuppressed patients and can constitute a threat to pregnant woman and their unborn children. In addition to LCMV and Ebola virus we are also investigating MERS coronavirus. The aim of our research is to develop cell culture systems that allow predicting transmissibility and thus pandemic potential of novel MERS coronavirus variants.

Another focus of our research is on primate herpesviruses. The transmission of herpes B virus from macaques to humans as well as transmission of related viruses among non-human primates can cause serve disease. We are investigating which viral and host factors determine whether infection will result in severe disease. Moreover, we are developing diagnostics for herpesvirus infections of non-human primates. Finally, we are offering diagnostics for many other viral infections of non-human primates, including a chip-based antibody detection system useful for screening of non-human primate colonies.

Recent publications summarized in three sentences

20.01.2021

Dalbavancin: novel candidate for COVID-19 treatment

Markus Hoffmann, Yeonhwa Jin and Stefan Pöhlmann highlight a study showing that the antibiotic Dalbavancin blocks binding of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to its receptor ACE2 and interferes with SARS-CoV-2 spread and pathogenesis in animal models.

Hoffmann et al, Dalbavancin: novel candidate for COVID-19 treatment. Cell Res. 2021 in press

Link to publication

19.01.2021

Cystatin C fragments block HIV and SIV entry

This study, led by the laboratory of Prof. Frank Kirchhoff, University Ulm, shows that fragments of the cellular protein Cystatin C block HIV and SIV usage of GPR15 as coreceptor for host cell entry. Blockade of GPR15 does not interfere with GPR15 activation by its natural ligand GPR15L. Cystatin C fragments are generated by proteases involved in inflammatory processes.

Hayn et al, Natural cystatin C fragments inhibit GPR15-mediated HIV and SIV infection without interfering with GPR15L signaling. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 118(3):e2023776118

Link to publication

16.11.2020

First evidence that Camostat may be suitable for treatment of COVID-19

The Infection Biology Unit identified the cellular protease TMPRSS2 as SARS-CoV-2 activator and showed that the clinically-proven TMPRSS2 inhibitor Camostat blocks viral entry into lung cells. This study, which was conducted in close collaboration with Dr. Martin Sebastian Winkler, Universitätsklinikum Göttingen, provided first evidence that Camostat may be suitable for treatment of severe COVID-19. Thus, Camostat-treated patients developed organ failure less frequently than hydroxychloroquine treated patients and had lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines.

Hofmann-Winkler et al, Camostat Mesylate May Reduce Severity of Coronavirus Disease 2019 Sepsis: A First Observation Crit Care Explor. 2020 2(11):e0284.

Link to publication

13.11.2020

Mechanism of TMPRSS2 inhibition by Camostat and Nafamostat

This study, led by the laboratory of Prof. Frank Noe, Freie Universitaet Berlin, shows that Camostat and Nafamostat block the activity of recombinant TMPRSS2. Moreover, evidence is provided that both Camostat and Nafamostot bind covalently to TMPRSS2. The interaction of Nafamostat with TMPRSS2 is more efficient as compared to Camostat, in keeping with the higher antiviral activity of Nafamostat.

Hempel et al, Molecular mechanism of inhibiting the SARS-CoV-2 cell entry facilitator TMPRSS2 with camostat and nafamostat. Chemical Science, 2020

Link to publication

02.11.2020

COVID-19 patients generate neutralising antibodies

The study led by the laboratory of Prof. Reinhold Förster shows that most COVID-19 patients with mild disease and all patients with severe disease generate neutralizing antibodies. The neutralizing antibodies block binding of the viral spike protein to the cellular receptor ACE2 and neutralizing antibody levels correlate with severity and duration of clinical symptoms but not with patient age.

Bošnjak et al, Low serum neutralizing anti-SARS-CoV-2 S antibody levels in mildly affected COVID-19 convalescent patients revealed by two different detection methods. Cell Mol Immunol. 2020 Nov 2;1-9.

Link to publication

29.10.2020

Acid sphingomyelinase as target for COVID-19 therapy

This study from the laboratory of Dr. Erich Gulbins provides evidence that the cellular protein acid sphingomyelinase promotes SARS-CoV-2 entry into cells and constitute a potential target for antiviral intervention. Blockade of acid sphingomyelinase by the drug amitriptyline, which has been approved for human use, blocks viral entry into cell lines and primary cells. Moreover, nasal epithelial cells from amitriptyline treated patients were resistant to SARS-CoV-2 spike protein-driven cell entry.

Carpinteiro et al, Pharmacological Inhibition of Acid Sphingomyelinase Prevents Uptake of SARS-CoV-2 by Epithelial Cells. Cell Rep Med. 2020 1(8):100142.

Link to the publication

29.09.2020

Gold nanoparticles with glycan coat block host cell entry of Ebola virus

This study led by the laboratory of Dr. Yuan Guo and Prof. Dejian Zhou, university Leeds, England, shows that gold nanoparticles coated with glycans can be used to analyze multivalent glycan-lectin interactions. The nanoparticles allow to determine the affinity of glycan-lectin interactions and to uncover mechanisms of affinity augmentation. Moreover, the nanoparticles allow blockade of DC-SIGN-mediated augmentation of Ebola virus glycoprotein-driven entry.

Budhadev et al, Glycan-Gold Nanoparticles as Multifunctional Probes for Multivalent Lectin-Carbohydrate Binding: Implications for Blocking Virus Infection and Nanoparticle Assembly. J Am Chem Soc. 2020 142(42):18022-18034.

Link to publication

11.09.2020

Sphingosine blocks SARS-CoV-2 entry into cells

This study from the laboratory of Dr. Erich Gulbins shows that Sphingosine, a central component of membrane lipids, blocks SARS-CoV-2 spike protein-driven entry into cells when added to target cells before virus. Inhibition of entry is due to Sphingosine binding to the cellular protein ACE2. ACE2 is used by SARS-CoV-2 as receptor for host cell entry and Sphingosin binding to ACE2 blocks subsequent interactions of ACE2 with the viral spike protein.

Edwards et al, Sphingosine prevents binding of SARS-CoV-2 spike to its cellular receptor ACE2. J Biol Chem. 2020 295(45):15174-15182.

Link to publication

23.07.2020

LY6E inhibits coronavirus infection

This study from the laboratory of Prof. Volker Thiel shows that the cellular protein  lymphocyte antigen 6 complex, locus E (LY6E) plays an important role in the immune defenses against coronavirus infection. Expression of LY6E is interferon-induced and the protein blocks fusion of the virus with the target cell. Loss of LY6E results in exacerabated disease in an rodent model of coronavirus infection.

Pfänder et al, LY6E impairs coronavirus fusion and confers immune control of viral disease. Nat Microbiol. 2020 5(11):1330-1339.

Link to the publication

22.07.2020

Chloroquine does not inhibit SARS-CoV-2

Chloroquine blocks SARS-CoV-2 infection of the kidney cell line Vero and it thus used for COVID-19 therapy. Hoffmann and coworkers now show that chloroquine does not block SARS-CoV-2 infection of the lung cell line Calu-3 and that lack of inhibition is associated with SARS-CoV-2 activation by the cellular protease TMPRSS2. These results indicate that chloroquine and the closely related drug hydroxychloroquine should not be used for COVID-19 therapy.

Hoffmann et al, Chloroquine does not inhibit infection of human lung cells with SARS-CoV-2. Nature. 2020, In press

Link to the publication   Additional information

28.05.2020

Llama antibody blocks SARS-CoV-2 entry

Recombinant antibodies that neutralized SARS-CoV-2 could be used for COVID-19 therapy and prevention. Wrapp and colleagues report the identification of a llama single domain antibody that inhibits SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 entry into cells. This antibody or related ones could be developed to combat COVID-19.

Wrapp et al, Structural Basis for Potent Neutralization of Betacoronaviruses by Single-Domain Camelid Antibodies, Cell. 2020 May 28;181(5):1004-1015.e15. 

Link to the publication

21.05.2020

Two-step activation of SARS-CoV-2

Cleavage of the SARS-CoV-2 surface protein spike by host cell proteases is required for viral infectivity. Hoffmann and colleagues demonstrate that spike protein cleavage by furin is required for viral infectivity. This finding and our previously published results demonstrate that spike protein cleavage by furin in infected cells is required for subsequent spike protein cleavage and activation by TMPRSS2, which occurs during viral entry and is essential for infection of lung cells.

Hoffmann et al, A Multibasic Cleavage Site in the Spike Protein of SARS-CoV-2 Is Essential for Infection of Human Lung Cells. Mol Cell. 2020 May 21;78(4):779-784.e5.

Link to the publication

22.04.2020

H2 influenza A viruses depend on TMPRSS2 for spread and pathogenesis

The cellular serine protease TMPRSS2 was shown to activate several influenza A viruses and coronaviruses. Lambertz and colleagues demonstrate that also H2 influenza A viruses depend on TMPRSS2 for spread and pathogenesis.

Lambertz et al, H2 influenza A virus is not pathogenic in Tmprss2 knock-out mice. Virol J. 2020 Apr 22;17(1):56.

Link to the publication

20.04.2020

Nafamostat mesylate inhibits SARS-CoV-2

Host cell entry of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 depends on activation of the viral spike protein by the cellular serine protease TMPRSS2. Hoffmann and colleagues show that Nafamostat mesylate, a serine protease inhibitors approved for treatment of pancreatitis in Japan, inhibits SARS-CoV-2 infection of lung cells.

Hoffmann et al, Nafamostat mesylate blocks activation of SARS-CoV-2: New treatment option for COVID-19. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2020 Apr 20. pii: AAC.00754-20.

Link to the publication

16.04.2020

Drug blocks SARS-CoV-2 infection of lung cells

Hoffmann and colleagues show that SARS-CoV-2 like SARS-CoV-1 uses the host cell proteins ACE2 and TMPRSS2 for entry into lung cells. TMPRSS2 is a serine protease that cleaves and thereby activates that viral spike protein – process that is disrupted by the clinically proven protease inhibitor camostat mesylate. Moreover, evidence is provided that sera from convalsecent SARS patients inhibit SARS-CoV-2 infection, although with low efficiency.

Hoffmann et al, SARS-CoV-2 Cell Entry Depends on ACE2 and TMPRSS2 and Is Blocked by a Clinically Proven Protease Inhibitor. Cell 2020 181(2):271-28

Link to the publication   Additional information 

01.01.2020

Polymorphisms in DPP4 gene might impact MERS-CoV infection

MERS-coronavirus uses the host cell protein DPP4/CD26 for entry into target cells.  Kleine-Weber and colleagues show that polymorphisms in the DPP4 gene can reduce DPP4 binding and viral entry. It will thus be interesting to determine whether such polymorphisms are present in the Saudia Arabian population and whether they impact the course of MERS-coronavirus infection.

Kleine-Weber et al, Polymorphisms in dipeptidyl peptidase 4 reduce host cell entry of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus. Emerg Microbes Infect. 2020 Dec;9(1):155-168

Link to the publication