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Hochsicherheitslabor BSL3 S3 Labor
Foto: Matthias Balk/Helmholtz Zentrum München

Better Prepared in Future: Research Infrastructure for Pandemic Management and Prevention Expanded

Awards & Grants, IEM, VIRO,

From now on, an improved research infrastructure for pandemic management and prevention will be available in the Greater Munich area: on the 29th of March 2023 a new biosafety level 3 laboratory was introduced at Helmholtz Munich. The project could be realized thanks to the EU funding "PerForM-REACT". Researchers can conduct important studies in the laboratory regarding the prevention and management of future pandemics. The project is part of the European COVID-19 aid REACT-EU and the European Regional Development Fund.

Prof Matthias Tschöp, CEO and scientific director at Helmholtz Munich explained: “The power of outstanding biomedical research has to be harnessed to better prepare the world for a future pandemic or similar event. Excellent research needs the brightest minds as well as first-class equipment. This EU funding enables us to further expand the laboratories and to deliver significant contributions to pandemic preparedness.”

Bavaria's Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Roland Weigert emphasized: „The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of the importance of outstanding basic research. Strategies for pandemic response and prevention, as well as for infection research, are of central importance to all of us. This includes the development and expansion of uniquely equipped high-security laboratories to gain a deeper understanding of pathogens that can trigger pandemics. The investment in new laboratory infrastructure supports Helmholtz Munich in its leading position as a highly innovative and globally renowned location for cutting-edge research.”

Research Projects at Helmholtz Munich

With its focus on lung diseases, metabolic diseases and drug discovery, scientists at Helmholtz Munich have developed a number of preventative and therapeutic approaches for the treatment of COVID-19. With the help of the new equipment for a biosafety level 3 (BSL3) laboratory, they will be able to further develop these approaches and gain insights for combating future pandemics.

Learning From the Pandemic

Prof Ulrike Protzer, director at the Institute of Virology at Helmholtz Munich and at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), is convinced, that we can learn from the current pandemic for further, emerging infectious diseases and therefore be more prepared: “New pathogens such as coronaviruses or influenza viruses that are transmitted via the respiratory tract trigger lung diseases in humans similar to what we experienced with SARS-CoV-2. We therefore need to better understand why emerging viruses always affect us in a similar way and let us fall ill. Knowledge of the processes that make us sick, but also of how we can detect and eliminate airborne pathogens, will help us to develop broadly effective therapeutic approaches quicker,” the leading virologist at Helmholtz Munich says. In the new laboratory it is now also possible to use state-of-the-art microscopic, molecular and structural biology detection methods for respiratory infections and even to set up preclinical models for airborne pathogens for drug development.

Next to the new laboratory equipment, Helmholtz Munich offers an excellent research network to contribute to pandemic preparedness: “The past years showed us how much we at Helmholtz Munich are able to contribute, because people, who know how to handle viruses safely, and a close collaboration with allergy and lung research, as well as other disciplines, are very much needed. This interaction has allowed us to study how the virus behaves and how the severe lung and tissue damage caused by corona occurs," explains the virologist.

Cross-Site, Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Laboratory capacities at the Augsburg site are also currently being expanded as part of "PerForM-REACT". With the focus on allergies and translational research scientists at the Institute of Environmental Medicine (IEM) at Helmholtz Munich are discovering the relationship between environmental influences (especially aerosols) and diseases and the determination of COVID-19 biomarkers for early detection of disease progression. With the help of the new equipment, they can now further develop these approaches and gain insights for future pandemics. Especially the measurement and quantification of virus particles in aerosols in patient rooms and public spaces will enable highly sensitive early warning systems.

In the future, the units in Munich and Augsburg will interlock for a fully comprehensive look at an infectious event. The project thus spans the spectrum from basic research, which generally helps to better understand the molecular processes in infections with the aid of the latest technologies, to the possibility of developing concrete strategies that can be quickly applied to research and pandemic control. Prof Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann, Director of the IEM and professor for Environmental Medicine at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Augsburg sees a great potential: “The pandemic has shown us how cooperation among scientists has made detection and control of the virus possible in a very short time."

Research in the High-Security Laboratory

To be able to conduct safe research on highly infectious pathogens, such as novel coronaviruses, laboratories must comply with strict regulations. In Germany, a European directive regulates the requirements for laboratories with four biosafety levels. Biosafety level 3 is required for research on airborne diseases such as COVID-19. The equipment of a BSL3 laboratory includes strict air isolation from the environment, rooms with negative pressure, special work benches, highly efficient ventilation and filter systems, a system for heat inactivation, and a sophisticated safety concept to safely prevent the escape or discharge of a pathogen. Depending on the research work, special technical equipment with measuring and analysis devices as well as special microscopes is required in the sealed-off BSL3 area. Highly qualified personnel for BSL3 laboratories also need special protective clothing and respiratory masks.

About the EU funding:

The EU funds used come from the reconstruction fund ("Next Generation EU") concluded at the end of 2020. An important instrument of the Recovery Fund is the "Recovery Assistance for Cohesion and the Territories of Europe" (REACT-EU) under the EU Structural Funds. Its purpose is to support member states in combating the economic and social consequences of the corona pandemic and in the transition to future-oriented and sustainable economic structures. "PerFormM-REACT" is funded with up to 18.5 million euros from REACT-EU funds.