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Helmholtz Munich

Burgstaller Lab

Immunotherapeutic Technologies

In the group of Immunotherapeutic Technologies we have a strong focus on establishing and applying advanced tools leading to the discovery and development of novel therapeutics, and thereby efficiently tackling chronic lung diseases.

About our Research

In the group of Immunotherapeutic Technologies we have a strong focus on establishing and applying advanced tools leading to the discovery and development of novel therapeutics, and thereby efficiently tackling chronic lung diseases. 

Pulmonary fibrosis, and especially Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF), is a progressing and finally deadly disease. The underlying pathophysiology is deranged wound-healing due to repetitive injury of the lung parenchyma, tissue scarring and abnormal extracellular matrix (ECM) deposition, largely attributed to (myo)fibroblasts as effector cells. Currently existing pharmacotherapy do not stop disease progression, leaving lung transplantation as the only clinical treatment. Thus, there is a high medical need for novel antifibrotic therapeutics.

Human disease models, drug development and translation

We seek to establish and apply advanced tools which are based on human disease models. With this toolbox we aim to discover and develop novel therapeutics that inhibit progression of fatal fibrotic lung diseases and ultimately secure survival of the patients. Using predictive human disease models already in early preclinical investigations in combination with phenotypic screening strategies, are the driving force for accelerating translation of novel first-in-class small-molecule drugs into the clinic.

New molecular targets and mode-of-action

Downstream of the drug discovery and development pipeline, we aim to understand and investigate the drugs’ mode-of-action, as well as to identify novel molecular targets and signaling pathways.  For all this we work highly multidisciplinary and collaborative. Our toolbox of applied technologies includes assay development, phenotypic high-throughput drug-screening, deep learning and artificial intelligence (AI) methods, imageomics, medicinal chemistry, advanced 3D and 4D imaging techniques, human ex-vivo disease models as precision cut lung slices (PCLS), mouse disease models, lung organoids, bioengineering and system biology approaches.

Scientists at Burgstaller Lab

Sara Asgharpour

PhD student

Michael Gerckens

Clinician Scientist

Marisa Neumann

Technical Assistant (TA)

Jeanine Chantal Pestoni

Medical Student (PhD)

Diana Porras-Gonzalez

Master Student

Xin Wei

PhD Student


2022, Scientific Article in Journal of Controlled Release

Spray drying siRNA-lipid nanoparticles for dry powder pulmonary delivery.

While all the siRNA drugs on the market target the liver, the lungs offer a variety of currently undruggable targets which could potentially be treated with RNA therapeutics. Hence, local, pulmonary delivery of RNA nanoparticles could finally enable delivery beyond the liver. The administration of RNA drugs via dry powder inhalers offers many advantages related to physical, chemical and microbial stability of RNA and nanosuspensions. The present study was therefore designed to test the feasibility of engineering spray dried lipid nanoparticle (LNP) powders. Spray drying was performed using 5% lactose solution (m/V), and the targets were set to obtain nanoparticle sizes after redispersion of spray-dried powders around 150 nm, a residual moisture level below 5%, and RNA loss below 15% at maintained RNA bioactivity. The LNPs consisted of an ionizable cationic lipid which is a sulfur-containing analog of DLin-MC3-DMA, a helper lipid, cholesterol, and PEG-DMG encapsulating siRNA. Prior to the spray drying, the latter process was simulated with a novel dual emission fluorescence spectroscopy method to preselect the highest possible drying temperature and excipient solution maintaining LNP integrity and stability. Through characterization of physicochemical and aerodynamic properties of the spray dried powders, administration criteria for delivery to the lower respiratory tract were fulfilled. Spray dried LNPs penetrated the lung mucus layer and maintained bioactivity for >90% protein downregulation with a confirmed safety profile in a lung adenocarcinoma cell line. Additionally, the spray dried LNPs successfully achieved up to 50% gene silencing of the house keeping gene GAPDH in ex vivo human precision-cut lung slices at without increasing cytokine levels. This study verifies the successful spray drying procedure of LNP-siRNA systems maintaining their integrity and mediating strong gene silencing efficiency on mRNA and protein levels both in vitro and ex vivo. The successful spray drying procedure of LNP-siRNA formulations in 5% lactose solution creates a novel siRNA-based therapy option to target respiratory diseases such as lung cancer, asthma, COPD, cystic fibrosis and viral infections.

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2022, Scientific Article in Journal of Controlled Release

Inhibition of SARS-CoV-2 replication in the lung with siRNA/VIPER polyplexes.

SARS-CoV-2 has been the cause of a global pandemic since 2019 and remains a medical urgency. siRNA-based therapies are a promising strategy to fight viral infections. By targeting a specific region of the viral genome, siRNAs can efficiently downregulate viral replication and suppress viral infection. However, to achieve the desired therapeutic activity, siRNA requires a suitable delivery system. The VIPER (virus-inspired polymer for endosomal release) block copolymer has been reported as promising delivery system for both plasmid DNA and siRNA in the past years. It is composed of a hydrophilic block for condensation of nucleic acids as well as a hydrophobic, pH-sensitive block that, at acidic pH, exposes the membrane lytic peptide melittin, which enhances endosomal escape. In this study, we aimed at developing a formulation for pulmonary administration of siRNA to suppress SARS-CoV-2 replication in lung epithelial cells. After characterizing siRNA/VIPER polyplexes, the activity and safety profile were confirmed in a lung epithelial cell line. To further investigate the activity of the polyplexes in a more sophisticated cell culture system, an air-liquid interface (ALI) culture was established. siRNA/VIPER polyplexes reached the cell monolayer and penetrated through the mucus layer secreted by the cells. Additionally, the activity against wild-type SARS-CoV-2 in the ALI model was confirmed by qRT-PCR. To investigate translatability of our findings, the activity against SARS-CoV-2 was tested ex vivo in human lung explants. Here, siRNA/VIPER polyplexes efficiently inhibited SARS-CoV-2 replication. Finally, we verified the delivery of siRNA/VIPER polyplexes to lung epithelial cells in vivo, which represent the main cellular target of viral infection in the lung. In conclusion, siRNA/VIPER polyplexes efficiently delivered siRNA to lung epithelial cells and mediated robust downregulation of viral replication both in vitro and ex vivo without toxic or immunogenic side effects in vivo, demonstrating the potential of local siRNA delivery as a promising antiviral therapy in the lung.

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2022, Scientific Article in Nature Communications

The arginine methyltransferase PRMT7 promotes extravasation of monocytes resulting in tissue injury in COPD.

Extravasation of monocytes into tissue and to the site of injury is a fundamental immunological process, which requires rapid responses via post translational modifications (PTM) of proteins. Protein arginine methyltransferase 7 (PRMT7) is an epigenetic factor that has the capacity to mono-methylate histones on arginine residues. Here we show that in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients, PRMT7 expression is elevated in the lung tissue and localized to the macrophages. In mouse models of COPD, lung fibrosis and skin injury, reduced expression of PRMT7 associates with decreased recruitment of monocytes to the site of injury and hence less severe symptoms. Mechanistically, activation of NF-κB/RelA in monocytes induces PRMT7 transcription and consequential mono-methylation of histones at the regulatory elements of RAP1A, which leads to increased transcription of this gene that is responsible for adhesion and migration of monocytes. Persistent monocyte-derived macrophage accumulation leads to ALOX5 over-expression and accumulation of its metabolite LTB4, which triggers expression of ACSL4 a ferroptosis promoting gene in lung epithelial cells. Conclusively, inhibition of arginine mono-methylation might offer targeted intervention in monocyte-driven inflammatory conditions that lead to extensive tissue damage if left untreated.

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2022, Scientific Article in Nucleic Acids Research

Targeting genomic SARS-CoV-2 RNA with siRNAs allows efficient inhibition of viral replication and spread.

A promising approach to tackle the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) could be small interfering (si)RNAs. So far it is unclear, which viral replication steps can be efficiently inhibited with siRNAs. Here, we report that siRNAs can target genomic RNA (gRNA) of SARS-CoV-2 after cell entry, and thereby terminate replication before start of transcription and prevent virus-induced cell death. Coronaviruses replicate via negative sense RNA intermediates using a unique discontinuous transcription process. As a result, each viral RNA contains identical sequences at the 5' and 3' end. Surprisingly, siRNAs were not active against intermediate negative sense transcripts. Targeting common sequences shared by all viral transcripts allowed simultaneous suppression of gRNA and subgenomic (sg)RNAs by a single siRNA. The most effective suppression of viral replication and spread, however, was achieved by siRNAs that targeted open reading frame 1 (ORF1) which only exists in gRNA. In contrast, siRNAs that targeted the common regions of transcripts were outcompeted by the highly abundant sgRNAs leading to an impaired antiviral efficacy. Verifying the translational relevance of these findings, we show that a chemically modified siRNA that targets a highly conserved region of ORF1, inhibited SARS-CoV-2 replication ex vivo in explants of the human lung. Our work encourages the development of siRNA-based therapies for COVID-19 and suggests that early therapy start, or prophylactic application, together with specifically targeting gRNA, might be key for high antiviral efficacy.

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2021, Scientific Article in Science Advances

Phenotypic drug screening in a human fibrosis model identified a novel class of antifibrotic therapeutics.

Fibrogenic processes instigate fatal chronic diseases leading to organ failure and death. Underlying biological processes involve induced massive deposition of extracellular matrix (ECM) by aberrant fibroblasts. We subjected diseased primary human lung fibroblasts to an advanced three-dimensional phenotypic high-content assay and screened a repurposing drug library of small molecules for inhibiting ECM deposition. Fibrotic Pattern Detection by Artificial Intelligence identified tranilast as an effective inhibitor. Structure-activity relationship studies confirmed N-(2-butoxyphenyl)-3-(phenyl)acrylamides (N23Ps) as a novel and highly potent compound class. N23Ps suppressed myofibroblast transdifferentiation, ECM deposition, cellular contractility, and altered cell shapes, thus advocating a unique mode of action. Mechanistically, transcriptomics identified SMURF2 as a potential therapeutic target network. Antifibrotic activity of N23Ps was verified by proteomics in a human ex vivo tissue fibrosis disease model, suppressing profibrotic markers SERPINE1 and CXCL8. Conclusively, N23Ps are a novel class of highly potent compounds inhibiting organ fibrosis in patients.

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Methods in Molecular Biology

Decellularized human lung scaffolds as complex three-dimensional tissue culture models to study functional behavior of fibroblasts.

In vitro culturing of cells in two-dimensional (2D) environments is a widespread used methodology in biomedical research. Most commonly, cells are cultured on artificial plastic dish surfaces, which lead to abnormal functional behaviors, as plastic does not reflect the native microenvironment found in vivo or in situ. Therefore, a multitude of three-dimensional (3D) cell culture systems were developed in the past years, which aim to bridge the gap between 2D cell culture dishes and the in vivo situation. One of the more recent development in the field, the generation of viable precision-cut tissue slices from various organs emerged as an exciting approach to study complex interactions and biological processes ex vivo in 3D. Decellularization of such tissue slices leads to the removal of all functional cells, and leaves behind a scaffold of extracellular matrix (ECM), which closely recapitulates the molecular composition, mechanical properties, topology, and microarchitecture of native ECM. Subsequently, decellularized precision-cut lung slices (PCLS), also called 3D lung tissue culture (3D-LTCs), can be successfully reseeded with a variety of cell types, including fibroblasts, which attach to and engraft into the matrix. Here, we describe the generation of PCLS from resected human lung tissue and their decellularization and recellularization with primary human fibroblasts. This novel 3D tissue culture model allows for various functional studies of fibroblast behavior on native ECM composition and topology.

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Dr. rer. nat. Gerald Burgstaller

Team Leader