A Viral Love Story | DiePresse.com

At Med-Uni Vienna, biologist Hannes Vietzen is researching how the complex interaction between viruses and our immune system affects the development of diseases.

Virology was “love at first sight” for him, says biologist and university assistant Hans Wietson. Center for Virology Medical University of Vienna. The German-born scientist was studying microbiology and immunology at the University of Vienna when he happened to attend a seminar at the institute and came across viruses as a research object. “I was absolutely fascinated by how such a microscopic virus could completely incapacitate large and complex humans.” He then decided to complete his master’s thesis in the research group of Elizabeth Buchhammer-Stocklin, head of the center. This was followed by a successful PhD and a postgraduate fellowship – a year of research on viruses that eventually turned into ten.

This gave Hannes Vietzen enough time to work with Puchhammer-Stöckl’s group on one of the most burning questions in virology, the link between Epstein-Barr viruses (EBV) and multiple sclerosis (MS). A possible link between EBV infection and the development of an autoimmune disease has long been suspected, in which the insulating outer layer of nerve cells (myelin) is severely damaged by one’s own immune system due to a faulty immune response. The result is a wide variety of neurological symptoms ranging from visual impairments to pain and numbness.

The holy grail of MS research

Although symptomatic EBV infection – also known as Pfeiffer glandular fever – has long been known to be a major risk factor for the later development of MS, it was only in 2022 that researchers at Stanford University discovered the cause. Through cross-reactivity, antibodies actually formed against the EBV virus bind to nerve cell structures, disrupting the growth and maintenance of insulating myelin. An important question remains unanswered: Although EBV infections are widespread, more than 90 percent of people are infected with the mostly harmless virus, and only a few develop multiple sclerosis. Why?

“Why do some people get multiple sclerosis and others don’t?”

Hans Wietson,

Virologist

“We wanted to understand why only some people develop autoimmune disease years after EBV infection. We actually discovered some factors that could solve this puzzle,” says Hans Wietzen. He and the research team were able to do so in a special issue Go Published studies show that there are certain characteristics of our immune system that in some cases lead to an overreaction and attack on nerve pathways. “Normally, our body keeps immune reactions against us in check. It is only when most of these control mechanisms do not work that the risk of MS increases dramatically.

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A vaccine to prevent MS?

Wietson and his colleagues recognized that there are certain genetic risk factors that inhibit these protective immune cells and help them attack neurons. The virologist now wants to continue his research: “If we can reliably predict who will get MS and who won’t in the future, we will have found the holy grail of MS research,” Wietson says. “It will also be exciting to see if we can develop a vaccine against EBV that prevents multiple sclerosis.”

He intends to pursue this goal in Vienna, although he has left his academic homeland for the time being and spent a year conducting research with EBV experts at the University of Zurich. Apart from the excellent scientific environment and Austrian cuisine, the city itself has always fascinated him. For example, when he reads history for the second time, it means home and study: “Vienna is a very beautiful and livable city – full of history and great food!”

to the person

Hannes Vietzen (33) studied biology at the University of Konstanz and, since 2013, microbiology and immunology at the University of Vienna. After completing a master’s and doctoral degree in the Elisabeth Buchhammer-Stocklin research group at the Center for Virology at the Med-Uni Vienna, he became a postdoctoral researcher and university assistant there in 2020.
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