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Evolution of Viruses

Virologist Benedikt Kaufer Awarded Lichtenberg Professorship from Volkswagen Foundation

№ 051/2017 from Mar 14, 2017

Prof. Dr. Benedikt Kaufer, a virologist at Freie Universität, has been awarded a Lichtenberg Professorship by the Volkswagen Foundation. As part of this appointment, he will investigate the virulence and vaccine resistance of the herpes virus Marek’s disease virus (MDV). "MDV not only causes a devastating disease in chickens, but also serves as an excellent model for virus-borne cancer in humans as well as for the evolution of viruses," explains Kaufer. Despite many years of research, the exact changes in the MDV gene that contribute to its circumventing vaccination protection are not known. "Our work will show whether vaccinations promote the development of more virulent viral strains," says Kaufer. These findings on the process of evolution of the viruses will provide the basis for developing new vaccines that offer better protection and possibly prevent the evolution of the viruses. The funding within the Lichtenberg Professorship amounts to more than one million euros over a four-year period.

"Vaccines are extremely important in protecting humans and animals from viral disease," says Kaufer. In spite of intensive vaccination campaigns, however, only two viruses have been eradicated: the poxviruses in humans and bovine plague in cattle. Although most antiviral vaccines produce a robust immune response, many viruses are able to infect a host and multiply within the host, which allows a continuous evolution of the pathogens, according to Kaufer. The highly oncogenic herpesvirus Marek’s disease virus (MDV) is an example of such a virus that is constantly evolving and overcoming vaccination protection.

Within the scope of the Lichtenberg Professorship of the Volkswagen Foundation, Kaufer and his colleagues will test the hypothesis of whether the vaccine resistance is caused by changes in certain genes of the virus. In addition, they will test whether suboptimal vaccines force the evolution of MDV to higher virulence. They will first test these approaches in cell culture and investigate the selection and evolution of viruses in vaccinated and non-vaccinated animals. They will then examine the genetic and phenotypic properties of the newly developed viruses that are able to overcome the vaccination protection.

In 2004 the Volkswagen Foundation set up the Lichtenberg Professorships to support outstanding scientists and scholars in pursuing interdisciplinary and innovative research projects.

Further Information

Prof. Dr. Benedikt B. Kaufer, Institute of Virology, Department of Veterinary Medicine, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 30 838-51936, Email: b.kaufer@fu-berlin.de