Research emphasis “Inflammation & Infection”

Coordinator: Univ.-Prof. Dr. Johannes Roth

The body’s inflammatory reactions, which occur, for example, during infections, infarctions, allergic reactions and autoimmune diseases, have a decisive influence on how a disease progresses in an individual patient. However, it is often difficult to predict exactly how inflammatory processes will develop. In addition, for many acute and chronic inflammatory diseases, there aren’t currently any therapies available that tackle the causes and are, thus, effective in the long term – current medications often only help relieve the symptoms. This indicates there is a need for new diagnostic and therapeutic strategies, the development of which requires a fundamental understanding of cellular and molecular processes in the body. The inflammation and infection research focus at the Faculty of Medicine, therefore, includes both basic and clinical research and combines expertise in immunology, cell biology, microbiology, virology, biochemistry and biomedical imaging.

A microscopic image of blood vessels. Such vessels consist of a layer of endothelial cells (green) and a basement membrane (violet) that form a barrier between flowing blood and the surrounding tissue. Such cellular barriers play an important role in inflammation because they regulate the immigration of immune cells (red) into the tissue.
© Hang Li, Stefan Butz, Dietmar Vestweber

The scientists involved investigate how the body regulates inflammation and work on identifying functional mechanisms that are crucial for determining whether and how severely organs are damaged by an inflammatory disease. They are using these findings to develop new strategies for medical care. The researchers comprehensively study how different immune cells interact with each other, with surrounding tissues and with infectious pathogens. There is a major focus on cellular barriers that separate the organism from the outside world as well as separating different tissues and organs from each other. They are of particular importance in inflammation processes because they prevent the invasion of infectious pathogens and regulate the migration of immune cells into tissues. An important aspect of this research focus is, therefore, to elucidate the organ-specific mechanisms of inflammation as immune responses differ depending on the organ in which they occur and whether inflammation is local or systemic. Other research focuses on the characteristics of pathogens that allow harmless colonisation processes to manifest infection and on which pathogenicity factors are responsible for damage to specific organs or the development of a chronic infection.

Visualising inflammation using microscopy (left, immune cells clustering in the belly of a mouse) and whole-body imaging (PET-CT, right, sugar metabolism on a patient’s blood vessel prosthesis). Microscopy only provides small spatial snapshots of an organism while whole-body imaging cannot distinguish individual cells. So researchers at the University of Münster are developing multiscale imaging methods that facilitate the analysis of large tissues and whole organs at high resolution over a longer period of time and that bring together information from various imaging modalities.
© WWU - AG Kiefer/AG Schäfers

In their investigations, the scientists are using various imaging technologies – from high-resolution microscopy to whole-body imaging technologies such as PET or MRI – and developing them further. With the help of imaging, they are investigating inflammatory reactions at the individual cell level and analysing how these cells function as part of entire organ systems. To do so, they work with cell cultures, conduct examinations in mice and carry out studies with patients.

An important strategy within this research focus is to bring the information gained about these different levels together to create a holistic view that can facilitate the identification of links between cellular inflammatory mechanisms and organ function. This multiscale imaging approach requires new chemical-biological strategies for labelling cells as well as innovative approaches for analysing image data using mathematical modelling and artificial intelligence. Thus, this research field is characterised by strong interdisciplinary and interfaculty collaboration.

The research interest in the field of inflammation and infection within the Faculty of Medicine has a long tradition that is reflected in the success our teams of scientists continue to have acquiring funding for large collaborative research projects through highly competitive procedures. This research focus is also one of the main pillars of the internationally visible profile area of cell dynamics and inmaging  at the University of Münster. It is comprehensively supported by scientific centres that institutionalise the collaboration of the Faculty of Medicine with the Faculties of Biology, Chemistry and Pharmacy, Mathematics and Computer Science, and Physics. This includes the Cells in Motion Interfaculty Centre (CiMIC) and its Multiscale Imaging Centre (MIC) – a research building in which working groups from different faculties come together – and the Centre for Molecular Biology of Inflammation (ZMBE).