Despite breathtaking progress in biomedicine in the past fifty years, infectious diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi stand out as one of the major causes of death worldwide, especially in low-income countries, according to the World Health Organization. This means infectious disease research addressing all aspects from basic mechanisms to patient settings, including global epidemiology will be crucial to improve clinical diagnosis of pathogens and to design appropriate anti-infective therapies.
Why do you choose to study this area?
It is just unbelievable how many lives have been saved owing to anti-infective antibiotic therapies. Nonetheless, infectious diseases remain a permanent threat to humanity and will remain so in the future. One reason I’m dedicated to this field is certainly the co-evolution of pathogens with the immune system. Another is the rapid and adaptive evolutionary capacities of many pathogens, including viruses that gain virulence traits enabling them to move between different mammals or vertebrates, which I find fascinating. Overall, I’ve been mesmerized by studying the causes of invasive fungal diseases, where very often otherwise harmless commensal fungal colonizers, can turn into deadly pathogens. Yet our understanding of underlying molecular and immunological processes of fungal diseases remain in their infancy.
What are the key questions that remain unanswered in infectious diseases today?
Countless fundamental questions about mechanisms, onset and progression of infectious diseases remain ill-posed or even unanswered. This implies concerted interdisciplinary efforts will be essential to better understand infectious diseases and how to combat them. The pharmaceutical industry will have to pursue new strategies for developing anti-infectives. Targeting the host immune system may also alleviate the emergence of drug and multi-drug resistance of pathogens.
Public perception efforts must better address existing geographic bias concerning threats of infections to public health, especially since less-privileged regions of the world are often held hostage by deadly diseases such as malaria, HIV, Ebola, tuberculosis, as well as bacterial or fungal infections. The recent dramatic re-emergence of almost forgotten or even eradicated diseases such as measles demonstrates that infectious diseases require permanent attention in basic and clinical research, drug discovery but also in raising public awareness about preventive options such as vaccination.
What boundaries of research urgently need to be pushed that you hope to see published in this section?
I hope to see interdisciplinary articles published in the specialty, and wherever possible, joint efforts addressing mechanistic principles of host-pathogen interplay by studying both immune responses and microbial pathogens. Animal model systems are critical for infectious diseases research. But a measurable impact on progress requires amenability to validation in the human or mammalian system. This is a critical precondition for the drug discovery pipeline, but it is also necessary to comply with increasingly restrictive animal welfare legislation.
What’s the most important contribution research in this area is going to make to other fields or disciplines?
Infectious diseases research is fragmented into smaller subfields and interdisciplinary efforts are often lacking. The history of “systems biology” beautifully demonstrates how cooperation across disciplines can strongly enhance research fields. I tend to believe that immunity will benefit the most from interdisciplinary studies and related publications. First, common denominators guarding the immune responses for distinct microbial pathogens, as well as pathogen-specific responses, will emerge, all of which may hold renewed promises for drug discovery. Second, it will be critical to get as close as possible to clinical settings, including studies on mixed infections which are of extraordinary complexity. These studies have become more amenable owing to single cell as well as global technologies covering proteomes, transcriptomes, and metabolomes and microbiomes.
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