The body’s own agents against bacteria, viruses and cancer
Human peptidome CRC extended in Ulm

Ulm University

In the Collaborative Research Centre 1279, a team of scientists in Ulm are investigating how the body’s own peptides and proteins can help the human body to ward off bacteria and viruses or fight cancer. The Collaborative Research Centre on “Exploiting the Human Peptidome for Novel Antimicrobial and Anticancer Agents” has now been extended for another four years. In the first funding phase, the CRC received more than 12 million euros in funding from the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG), and now an additional 12 million euros will be added to that. This is a great achievement for the Ulm University Life Sciences Department.

Without peptides and proteins, our bodies wouldn’t work at all. They are involved in all of our vital physiological processes and play an important role in fighting infections and other diseases as well. “We collectively refer to all of the proteins and peptide compounds in the human body as the ‘peptidome’. There are millions of different compounds for which the biological functions are not yet known”, explains Professor Frank Kirchhoff, head of the Institute of Molecular Virology at Ulm University Medical Centre. The virologist is the spokesperson for the CRC 1279, which was recently extended by the German Research Foundation (DFG) for another four years. The aim of this Collaborative Research Centre in Ulm is to systematically search for peptides and peptide compounds that display anti-microbial or anticancer effects. Potentially useful peptides are analysed, characterised and, if necessary, optimised, in order to develop them for therapeutic applications.

Spotlight on infections, inflammations and cancer

During the first phase of funding (2017/2 to 2021/1), the researchers were successful in identifying a series of peptide compounds that support the body in fighting against bacteria, viruses and cancer. The successful research consortium focuses on infectious diseases, inflammations and cancer – ranging from AIDS, COVID-19, Alzheimer’s and asthma to leukaemia, lymphoma, whooping cough and diphtheria. In the course of their search for useful peptides, the scientists have examined all types of bodily fluids, including blood plasma, human breastmilk, fluids from lung rinses, saliva and sperm. The researchers have also found peptide extracts in tissues, such as the placenta.

For the second phase of funding (2021/2 to 2025/1), which begins in July, another topic is moving into the focus of this large-scale research project: “Numerous anti-microbial or tumour-inhibiting peptides develop from certain precursor proteins that can be found in large quantities in the body. The special thing about them is that the specifically acting peptides are only formed at the site during inflammations or infections”, explains Kirchhoff. These peptides are now to be examined in more detail. They arise from the so-called proteolytic degradation of precursor proteins such as albumin, haemoglobin or antitrypsin. Protein-degrading enzymes (proteases) come into play, which are in turn activated by the immune system.

Interdisciplinary research in 20 projects

30 project managers from the fields of medicine and natural sciences are working together to tackle this large research project at Ulm University and the University Medical Centre. They include researchers from the fields of virology, cancer research, microbiology, biochemistry, physics, pharmacology and high-performance imaging. The 20 research projects are divided up into three sections. The Ulm Peptidome CRC has taken a wide-reaching approach. It ranges from discovery and purification of possible “candidate” molecules to their biochemical characterisation and pharmacological optimisation and even includes the development of therapies. A great deal of their work focuses on the development of peptide “libraries” and the preparation of clinical studies, including the development of suitable animal models and corresponding in-vivo imaging procedures.

“We are delighted that the German Research Foundation is continuing to fund this extraordinary Collaborative Research Centre. This is clear confirmation of the outstanding work our scientists do. With their research, they have also set new international standards in this highly innovative area” emphasises Professor Michael Weber, president of Ulm University.

Text and mediacontact: Andrea Weber-Tuckermann

Prof Frank Kirchhof, spokesperson for CRC 1279
Prof Frank Kirchhof, spokesperson for CRC 1279 (Photo: Elvira Eberhardt)
Peptide research
Peptide research at the Institute of Molecular Virology (Photo: Elvira Eberhardt)