The SGVIVI research focus

In the last couple of years tremendous progress has been made in understanding immune regulation and especially immune dysregulation. Most of the knowledge has been generated by studying animal models for cancer or infectious diseases, including findings that were made by members of the SGVIVI. Immune dysregulation and T cell exhaustion are hallmarks of chronic infections and cancer, and many cellular and molecular features of these dysfunctions are similar between both diseases. Despite these similarities the cancer field is currently way ahead of infection research when it comes down to actually utilizing the new knowledge for the therapy of patients in the clinic. Already in 2013 cancer immunotherapy was named the breakthrough of the year by the Science magazine. Today numerous clinical trials for immunotherapy of cancers are ongoing and some of the new treatment protocols have already become standard therapy against some tumor entities. In contrast, significantly fewer clinical trials for immunotherapy of chronic infectious diseases are currently being conducted. So the question arises if we don’t need immunotherapy to fight chronic infections? The answer is that we do need such new therapies also for infectious diseases, but the pressure to develop these was obviously not as high as in the cancer field. One reason is that in the last few years more and more direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) have been developed. Surprisingly, some of these novel drugs can even cure persistent infections, as in the case of chronic HCV infection. For this virus immunotherapy might be therefore no longer of importance. However, other DAAs can only suppress viral replication and protract disease development, but they cannot cure chronic infections. This is the case for chronic infections with Retroviruses (HIV and HTLV) or HBV, except rare cases of functional cure in chronic HBV patients treated with DAAs only. There is compelling evidence that complete cure or functional cure for those infections can only be efficiently achieved when the immune system, which is usually dysfunctional during viral chronicity, can be reactivated to efficiently fight the virus. If this is possible with immunotherapy alone or only with a combination therapy including DAAs is still a matter of debate and needs to be carefully tested in preclinical animal models.

The special feature of HBV and retroviruses that makes it so difficult to achieve cure is the reservoir of the virus. Both viruses have persistent forms of their genome, which serve as template for virus production and cannot be targeted by current DAAs. Thus, a successful combination therapy must also address the question of how to tackle the viral reservoir. Despite these difficulties several health agencies, including the WHO, have outlined declarations to develop a cure for HIV and HBV within the next decade. Several new tools, including therapeutic vaccines, for the development of new immunotherapies against chronic infections are currently at hand. Now is the time to test novel immunotherapy options, especially combination therapies, in preclinical animal models of infectious diseases. Some of the possible new targets for immunotherapy were first described to play a role in infectious diseases by SGVIVI members. In order to test new tools for immunotherapy against chronic infections sophisticated animal models are needed. It has therefore always been a focus of the SGVIVI members' research to develop and improve animal models for chronic virus infections. Basic findings on immune regulation from animal models also need to be confirmed in patient studies, which is why we are analyzing patient samples from very defined large cohorts of HIV- or HBV-infected individuals in many SGVIVI members' workgroups. Our overall aim is to develop novel immunotherapies or combination therapies to achieve complete or functional cure of chronic HIV and HBV infections.

The SGVIVI organizational structure

Head of the SGVIVI and Chair of the Scientific Committee:
Prof. Dr. Ulf Dittmer Email

The Scientific Committee
The Scientific Committee is the scientific aims monitoring body and coordinates the research programme. The elected members are:

Prof. Dr. Ulf Dittmer, Institute for Virology, Essen
Prof. Dr. Matthias Gunzer, Experimental Immonology and Imaging, Essen
Prof. Dr. Karl Lang, Institute for Immonology, Essen 
Prof. Dr. Astrid Westendorf, Institute for Medical Microbiology, Essen
Prof. Dr. Dongliang Yang, Wuhan Union Hospital, HUST
Prof. Dr. Zhenghong Yuan, Fudan University, Medical College, Shanghai
Prof. Dr. Xinwen Chen, Wuhan Institute for Virology
Prof. Dr. Ying Zhu, Wuhan University, State Key Lab of Virology 

Management and administration
The Institute for Virology at the University Hospital in Essen coordinates all management issues of the SGVIVI. The management team consists of two scientific secretaries and two administrative secretaries placed in Essen and in China: 


Scientific Secretaries  
PD Dr. Kathrin Sutter
Institute for Virology Essen
Dr. Jia Liu
Wuhan Union Hospital, HUST
Administrative Secretaries  
Ursula Schrammel
Institute for Virology Essen
Allen Tao Yu
Wuhan Union Hospital, HUST