Header (Kopie) (Kopie)

Jena - a city of science in the fight against COVID-19

A small city in middle Germany is taking bold steps to overcome the current COVID-19 crisis. Jena, in the state of Thuringia, was the first city in Germany to implement a lockdown ahead of the federal government’s instructions, social-distancing measures and the mandatory use of face masks in public spaces. These measures resulted in the rapid containment of the outbreak by successfully reducing the number of new infections and deaths.

Jena has long been known for its scientific culture owing to such luminaries as the evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel, who coined the term ecology, and his contemporaries Carl Zeiss, Ernst Abbe and Otto Schott who revolutionized the integration of optical science and industry. To this day, Jena is known as an international technological and scientific hub where many different fields converge and which is home to several Max Planck Society and Leibniz Association Research Institutes. By harnessing this concentration of expertise, the Friedrich Schiller University Jena was successful in gaining Germany’s most prestigious funding for the research Cluster of Excellence “Balance of the Microverse” that aims to investigate the importance of balanced microbial life for the environment, agriculture and health. It is no surprise then that Jena’s scientific community quickly stepped up to offer solutions in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

At the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus

Prof. Michael Bauer is the Director of the Department of Anesthesiology and Intensive Care Medicine at the University Hospital in Jena, and an expert on the mechanisms that govern organ failure during sepsis. He is now leading the healthcare personnel that treats COVID-19 patients from Jena and its surroundings. “Our team of doctors and nurses are well prepared to fight this crisis. We are training young doctors in intensive care medicine to treat patients with COVID-19 and reduce the burden in our public health system,” says Bauer. His team can rely on support with the diagnosis of SARS-COV-2 by other teams of local researchers.

The Director of the Institute for Medical Microbiology at the Jena University Hospital, Prof. Bettina Löffler, normally focuses on elucidating pathogenicity mechanisms of bacterial sepsis. Her group has now dedicated its expertise in molecular biology and to the diagnosis of patients with SARS-COV-2 in Jena.

Global demand for diagnostic reagents led to severe shortages in the early stages of the pandemic. The research group of Organic Chemistry led by Prof. Ulrich Schubert helped alleviate this problem by generating the reagents required for the PCR-based diagnosis test in their laboratory.

Development of new tests

COVID-19 diagnostic testing relies on the detection of the genetic material of the virus in bodily fluids, but there is also a need for tests that determine whether an individual has had the disease and possibly built up immunity against it. Scientists from the Leibniz Institute of Photonic Technology developed a test that detects antibodies against the virus from blood samples in only ten minutes. “We do not know how many people are already immune. Thus, antibody tests provide important information for understanding and containing the corona pandemic,” says Prof. Ralph Ehricht, the lead investigator and professor at the department of Optical Molecular Diagnostics and System Technology. The test is already commercially available through the partner company SENOVA that is based in nearby Weimar and will be particularly important to determine if front-line workers can safely return to work after having contracted the disease.

Bioinformatics to study viruses

The ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 raises questions about how the virus may evolve as it continues to spread and how stable it is in the environment. Prof. Manja Marz heads the European Virus Bioinformatics Center at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena and applies computational tools to assess these properties of the virus in collaboration with virologists from the University Hospital in Jena. They are currently focusing on the stability of the virus in liquids, to determine if humidity may affect its transmission and whether this might lead to seasonal variations in the intensity of the pandemic.

“We are proud of our scientific community and their commitment to helping solve the most pressing societal problems. The collaborative spirit of our scientists is exactly what we need to overcome this crisis and provide future health benefits,” concludes Prof. Axel Brakhage, Director of the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology in Jena and Spokesperson of the Research Cluster of Excellence “Balance of the Microverse”.

Text: Wolfgang Vivas