Viruses in focus

Dr. Andrea Thoma-Kreß
Dr. Andrea Thoma-Kreß, Chair of Clinical and Molecular Virology (Image: Michael Rabenstein/UKER)

Infection research benefits from funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research for promoting young researchers.

Virus transmission is receiving a great deal of attention during the coronavirus pandemic. However, SARS-CoV-2 is primarily transmitted by aerosols. Human T-lymphotropic virus 1 (HTLV-1), a retrovirus which can cause leukaemia, is different because it is transmitted via bodily fluids that contain cells. A research group led by Dr. Andrea Thoma-Kreß from the Chair of Clinical and Molecular Virology at FAU is currently investigating the HTLV-1 virus at Universitätsklinikum Erlangen. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is funding the project with approximately 2.3 million euros.

The project is called ‘Milk Transmission of Viruses (Milk TV)’ and is concerned with the transmission of viruses via breast milk. ‘This is a common transmission route for HTLV-1 and a challenging topic because breast milk otherwise offers many benefits towards developing a healthy immune system in infants,’ says Dr. Thoma-Kreß.

Once the infection has been absorbed through the breast milk, it might seem innocuous at first. However, it can lead to severe illnesses such as leukaemia in later life, as the virus primarily attacks white blood cells. Approximately 10 million people around the world are infected with HTLV-1 – mostly without their knowledge. Many infections have been reported in Brazil, the Caribbean, Japan, Sub-Saharan Africa or Central Australia.

Discouraging people from breastfeeding is not a recommended course of action, according to Dr. Thoma-Kreß: ‘In many countries where the virus is particularly widespread there are simply not enough resources to recommend switching to substitute products. Mothers are depending on breastfeeding their infants,’ says the molecular medicine specialist. Before scientists can break the chain of infection effectively, they need to find out more about how the transmission takes place from mother to child. The findings from the ‘Milk TV’ project will be used as a basis for developing prevention strategies that allow mothers to continue breastfeeding their children.

‘Our project benefits greatly from the outstanding scientific environment at Universitätsklinikum Erlangen and FAU,’ emphasises Dr. Thoma-Kreß. Further to interdisciplinary collaborations within FAU, such as Research Training Group GRK2504 for developing new antiviral strategies at the Institute of Virology, the team from FAU are also planning an international collaboration with scientists from Belgium, Brazil and Australia, as well as with midwives and partner organisations.

The FAU team which includes five doctoral candidates in addition to the project manager, a clinical laboratory assistant, a Master’s degree student and a student assistant is being funded with approximately 2.3 million euros by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The funding is part of a new instrument for promoting young researchers in infection research for clinical and applied research. It aims to support particularly talented young researchers in developing their careers towards a professorship.

Further information

Dr. Andrea Thoma-Kreß
Chair of Clinical and Molecular Virology
+49 9131 8526429

Addition information