Outstanding achievements in the battle against the novel coronavirus
Researchers from Ulm successful in DFG COVID-19 Focus Funding

Ulm University

Scientists from Ulm University and Ulm University Medical Center are at the forefront of research in the ongoing battle against the coronavirus. Most recently, they were successful in getting over 428,000 euros of funding for four projects within the newly established COVID-19 Focus Programme of the German Research Foundation (DFG). No other institution in Germany has been so successful in this programme.  

The German Research Foundation (DFG) is funding a total of 33 projects through its COVID-19 Focus Funding programme, with a total volume of 3.6 million euros. Four proposals were submitted by researchers from Ulm University. “All of our submissions were approved. This is a great success and recognition of our work on SARS-CoV-2,” said Professor Frank Kirchhoff, Director of the Institute of Molecular Virology at Ulm University Medical Center. The topic of the DFG Focus Funding is “Immunity, Host Susceptibility and Pathomechanisms of SARS-CoV-2 Infection.” The main aim of this programme is to clarify how the body reacts to SARS-CoV-2, which defence mechanisms are activated and how the virus evades them.

Three of the six Ulm applicants work at the Institute of Molecular Virology. They include Professors Frank Kirchhoff and Jan Münch and Dr Konstantin Sparrer, BMBF Junior Group Leader. All three scientists have already made significant contributions to current research on SARS-CoV-2. Together with Professor Manfred Frick and PD Dr Oliver Wittekindt from the Institute of General Physiology and Professor Alexander Kleger from the Department of Internal Medicine I, they now intend to investigate further immunological and pathophysiological aspects of COVID-19. The four Focus Funding projects will explore the interplay between SARS-CoV-2 and the immune system systematically and study disease processes affecting the lung and the pancreas.

The four projects at a glance 

•     In the first project, Dr Konstantin Sparrer examines how the novel coronavirus antagonizes the innate immune system. Dr Sparrer is particularly interested in virus-encoded proteins that override antiviral defence mechanisms. If these “hostile” viral proteins can be understood, strategies can be developed to neutralize them. The researchers hope that this will facilitate the development of novel therapeutic approaches that help the immune system to control the virus.  

•     The second project in Ulm, involving virologist Professor Jan Münch and Professor Manfred Frick of the Institute of General Physiology, focuses on the vital function of the alveoli. This is where type II alveolar epithelial cells are particularly affected in a severe SARS-CoV-2 infection of the lungs. The result: The air-blood barrier collapses and acute and sometimes life-threatening respiratory distress occurs. The researchers hope to determine whether the body’s own protein antitrypsin can be used to protect the alveoli against the coronavirus. 

•     The third project proposal also focuses on the lungs, specifically the lung epithelium. This surface of the airways forms a natural barrier at the entry site of coronaviruses. Professor Frank Kirchhoff and PD Dr Oliver Wittekindt (Institute of General Physiology) explore how the virus manages to breach this protective barrier and penetrate the lung tissue. The results are expected to improve our understanding of how airborne viral invaders can be successfully repelled. 

•     The fourth proposal, submitted by Professor Alexander Kleger (Department of Internal Medicine I) and Professor Jan Münch, focuses on the pancreas. While entering the human host via the lungs, coronaviruses invade and damage other organs, such as the heart or kidneys. Observations of COVID patients also indicate a disturbed insulin metabolism. The scientists therefore aim to determine whether and how pancreatic cells, specifically insulin-producing cells, are infected and to what extent infection with coronaviruses impairs the function of the respective cell type within the pancreas.

“Infection research in Ulm has been able to respond to the pandemic situation in a timely, targeted and flexible manner.” These scientists are convinced that “with our new findings on the molecular basis, we intend to make an important contribution to fighting the virus.” 


Background: DFG COVID-19 Focus Funding

The Focus Funding of the German Research Foundation is a new funding instrument. The approved projects are funded for a maximum of one year, amounting to a total funding package of 3.6 million euros. Scientists who are particularly qualified in the relevant field and who already have the appropriate research infrastructures and research material at their disposal were eligible to apply. The procedure was streamlined and simplified to ensure that research projects on urgent questions relating to COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 could be launched as quickly as possible, so that they can produce tangible results within one year at the latest. The Focus Funding is closely linked to the German Research Foundation’s Interdisciplinary Commission for Pandemic Research, which was established last summer. The call for proposals was made in view of the special research needs identified by the Pandemic Commission, to enable a rapid gain in knowledge of the highest quality. 

More detailed information on the Focus Funding projects from the first call for proposals “Immunity, Host Susceptibility and Pathomechanisms of SARS-CoV-2 Infection” can be found here:

For more information, please contact:

Dr Konstantin Sparrer, Institute of Molecular Virology, Phone: 0731 / 500 65155, Email:

Media contact: Andrea Weber-Tuckermann 



This confocal microscope apparatus visualizes virus-infected cells
This confocal microscope apparatus visualizes virus-infected cells (Photo: Elvira Eberhardt / Ulm University)
This confocal microscope apparatus visualizes virus-infected cells (Photo: Elvira Eberhardt / Ulm University)
from left Professor Alexander Kleger (Department of Internal Medicine I) with Professor Manfred Frick and PD Dr Oliver Wittekindt (Institute of General Physiology) (Photos: Ulm University / Ulm University Medical Center)
Electron microscope image of  coronavirus SARS-CoV-2
Electron microscope image of coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (Depiction: Dr Clarissa Read / Ulm University)