The Kiel immunologist from the Cluster of Excellence "Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation" (PMI) has been awarded an ERC Starting Grant to investigate the interactions between the immune system and microbiome in detail.
The key to understanding chronic inflammatory diseases lies in the way our immune system interacts with the microbiome, i.e. the microorganisms living in and on our body. Professor Petra Bacher is certain of this. And this is precisely the focus of the MicroT project, which the European Research Council (ERC) is funding for the next five years through one of the prestigious Starting Grants of 1.5 million Euros. The abbreviation MicroT stands for Microbiota-T cell interactions – antigen-specificity and regulation in health and disease. "We must first understand how the healthy interaction of the immune system with the different microbes works, and then explore what is different in people with chronic inflammatory diseases," explained Bacher, who leads a Schleswig-Holstein Excellence Chair junior research group at the Institute of Immunology and the Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology (IKMB). "The University Board at Kiel University warmly congratulates Ms Bacher on this great success," said Professor Eckhard Quandt, CAU Vice-President of Research, Transfer, Scientific Infrastructure and Digitalization. "The fact that she was able to successfully compete for the coveted funding from the ERC fund clearly highlights the potential of the Schleswig-Holstein Excellence Chair program for our talented early career researchers, and also that of our university." Professor Stefan Schreiber, spokesperson for the Cluster of Excellence PMI, praised the innovative and ambitious project plan of Petra Bacher, who also recently received the cluster's Dorothea Erxleben award. "Her research specifically pursues the cluster's mission of establishing precision medicine for chronic inflammatory diseases, by taking into account the individual variability of humans and their environment," emphasized the director of the IKMB and head of the Department of Internal Medicine I at the UKSH, Campus Kiel. "We are particularly delighted that here again a highly qualified woman is receiving this recognition of her excellence."
Microbial diversity and specific immune reactions
In her research, the immunologist focuses on the role of certain cells of the immune system, the T cells, which have a central role in the defense against infections. Using their T cell receptor, they can specifically recognize a specific antigen (foreign protein) and trigger an immune response that exactly matches the antigen. Bacher said: "For example, there are T cells that detect the intestinal pathogen E. coli, or those that detect the yeast fungus Candida albicans, and others that react to a variety of different skin microbes. We want to understand how the T cell reaction to microbes works and how it is regulated. There are a huge number of different microbes, but only a limited set of T cells. Nevertheless, they are able to precisely identify the different microbes and react appropriately. Because different microbes each require a special type of immune response, in order to maintain the physiological balance between human and microbe." In a second step, the scientist and her research group want to investigate what goes wrong in the case of chronic inflammatory diseases. Inappropriate or too strong immune responses can lead to autoimmune diseases, chronic inflammations or allergies. "We must first understand how the interaction works in a healthy state, in order to then determine what the incorrect reaction is. And we examine this specifically in blood samples from patients with chronic inflammatory diseases of the intestine (Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis) and the skin (psoriasis, atopic dermatitis), so precisely those areas on the body that are massively colonized with microbes."
Goal: blocking disease-causing immune processes
The special feature of Petra Bacher's project is its focus on antigen specificity. To date, it is not known which microbes trigger specific T cell reactions in humans, how the interaction with the huge number of different types of microbes is regulated, and how changes contribute to diseases. "In previous work, we have developed a highly sensitive technology that allows microbe-specific T cells to be detected directly from human samples and to characterize these cells in detail. We will use this method to investigate which microbes trigger T cell reactions at all." In addition, the project will also decipher the molecular mechanisms that regulate the chronic interaction of T cells with the extremely diverse microbiota. The ultimate goal is to better understand the underlying mechanisms of diseases caused by the immune system, and to develop therapeutic approaches that specifically eliminate the disease-causing cells. "This is not possible at present. Current treatments have been designed to rather completely suppress inflammation. But actually, we only want to turn off what is really causing problems," said Bacher.
The research project is being carried out in cooperation with Professor Stefan Schreiber, Department of Internal Medicine I, Professor Stephan Weidinger, Department of Dermatology, and Professor Claudia Baldus, Department of Internal Medicine II - Hematology and Oncology, all at the University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH), Campus Kiel, as well as Professor Jan Rupp, Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology at the UKSH, Campus Lübeck.
About Petra Bacher
Petra Bacher (born in 1984) has been Professor of Immunology and Immunogenetics at the Faculty of Medicine at Kiel University (CAU) since July 2018. She leads the Schleswig-Holstein Excellence Chair junior research group for Intestinal Immune Regulation, which is based at the Institute of Immunology and the IKMB of the CAU and UKSH. Since her doctoral degree in 2014 at Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Bacher has been researching the role of the immune system in chronic inflammatory diseases with a particular focus on certain immune cells, the CD4+ T cells, which specifically recognize pathogens, microbes and other foreign antigens. Although these T cells are important for a healthy immune response, certain T cell reactions can also cause diseases and chronic inflammation. Before joining Kiel University, Bacher was a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology at the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. The immunologist has already received several awards, including the 2020 Robert Koch Post-doctoral Award and the 2021 Dorothea Erxleben award of the Cluster of Excellence "Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation" (PMI).
ERC Starting Grants
The European Research Council (ERC) was established in 2007 and supports high-risk, fundamental research at EU level. It is financed by the EU's Research Framework Programme. With the Starting Grants, the ERC supports the scientific
independence of excellent early career researchers, between two and seven years after obtaining their doctorate, through the establishment of a research team.
Link to the ERC press release:
Prof. Petra Bacher
Institute of Immunology, CAU and UKSH
About the Cluster of Excellence PMI
The Cluster of Excellence "Precision Medicine in Chronic Inflammation" (PMI) is being funded from 2019 to 2025 through the German Excellence Strategy (ExStra). It succeeds the "Inflammation at Interfaces” Cluster, which was already funded in two periods of the Excellence Initiative (2007-2018). Around 300 members from eight institutions at four locations are involved: Kiel (Kiel University, University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH), Muthesius University of Fine Arts and Design, Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN)), Lübeck (University of Lübeck, University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH)), Plön (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology) and Borstel (Research Center Borstel - Leibniz Lung Center).
The goal is to translate interdisciplinary research findings on chronic inflammatory diseases of barrier organs to healthcare more intensively, as well as to fulfil previously unsatisfied needs of the patients. Three points are important in the context of successful treatment, and are therefore at the heart of PMI research: the early detection of chronic inflammatory diseases, the prediction of disease progression and complications, and the prediction of individual responses to treatment.
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