Approx. 12.1 millions: New 'Peptide Collaborative Research Centre' for Ulm University
The body's inbuilt defence against HIV, Zika and cancer

Ulm University

Great success for Ulm University: The German Research Foundation (DFG) supports the establishment of the Collaborative Research Centre (SFB) 1279 'Utilisation of the human peptidome in the development of new antimicrobial and anticancer therapeutic agents'. The research project is funded with approx. 12.1 million euros for four years and focuses on peptides that are endogenous to the human body. Peptides are small 'protein building blocks' that have great potential for the treatment of cancer and infectious diseases.

'The peptidome is the entirety of peptides of the human body and comprises millions of connections. Some of these can strengthen the immune defence of bacteria and viruses, others inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells. However, only a small percentage has been characterised yet,' explains SFB spokesperson Professor Frank Kirchhoff and Director of the Institute of Molecular Virology in Ulm. The peptidome is thus an almost infinite resource for new biologically active substances, adds Professor Jan Münch, Deputy Director of the Institute of Molecular Virology.

Main goal of the new Collaborative Research Centre is to identify peptides that can treat infectious diseases and cancer with little side effects – and to optimise them with the help of new technologies to put them into therapeutic practice within the human body. Renowned microbiologists, virologists and cancer researchers have joined forces with quantum physicists, pharmacologists and other scientists at Ulm University for this endeavour.

Peptide banks from human body fluids, as they are already in use at the Centre for Peptide Pharmaceuticals in Ulm (UPEP) and the newly founded Core Facility 'Functional Peptidomics' at the University, play a key role in this scientific work. The virologists in Ulm were able to identify peptides, for example, that function as the body's own HIV suppressant, and others that inhibit the migration of cancer cells. However, they also discovered 'amplifiers' in human semen which could potentially contribute to the virus' transmission via sexual contact.

The first SFB project area focuses on the identification and characterisation of antimicrobial peptides that are effective against the pathogens causing tuberculosis, HIV, Zika and Herpes. The second area centres on cancerous diseases, as peptides also modulate the survival and metastatic proliferation of cancer cells. Professor Christian Buske, SFB co-spokesperson and Medical Director of the Institute of Experimental Tumour Research, as well as other well-known colleagues will primarily research the interactions between leukaemia and cancer stem cells and their microenvironments.

Other SFB projects look into new methods to optimise activity, stability and release of bioactive peptides. Innovative imaging techniques will help with the characterisation of peptides. The research team around the third SFB co-spokesperson, quantum physicist Professor Martin Plenio, works on the visualisation of peptide structures with the help of diamond sensors. They also contribute their expertise to high-performance magnetic resonance imaging with hyperpolarised diamonds. The researches furthermore have the low-voltage transmission electron microscope 'SALVE' (Sub-Ångström Low-Voltage Electron Microscopy) at their disposal. 'The SFB is dedicated to a new, ambitious research area. We want to gain fundamental insights into the roles of the body's own peptides in pathological processes and utilise that knowledge to develop new, peptide-based techniques and medications,' summarises SFB spokesperson and Leibniz laureate (2009) Kirchhoff.

President of Ulm University Professor Michael Weber also congratulates on this fifth DFG Collaborative Research Centre: 'Cancer and infections are among the most common illnesses affecting humans. To beat these diseases with the body's innate peptides and thus reduce side effects is an important and promising research task. I am delighted that the research team around Professor Kirchhoff succeeded with their concept.'

Prof. Kirchhoff
Professor Frank Kirchhoff is spokesperson for the new Collaborative Research Centre 1279 'Utilisation of the human peptidome in the development of new antimicrobial and anticancer therapeutic agents' at Ulm University (photo: Grandel/Ulm University Hospital)
Peptid EPI-X4
Structure of peptide EPI-X4, a fragment with 16 amino acids from serum albumin which inhibits both HIV-1 infection as well as the migration of cancer cells (Institute of Molecular Virology)