Press release: Christine Goffinet studies the language of viruses

Since the beginning of February this year, Christine Goffinet has been the BIH Professor of Virology at the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) and the Institute of Virology at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. She is conducting research into the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the chikungunya virus, an “emerging” virus that has also spread to Europe as a result of global warming. Goffinet, who is a biologist, has a particular interest in the communication between the virus and the host and its immune system, exploring questions like: How does the host cell defend itself from infection, and how does the virus elude this defense mechanism?

“The HIV infection can be successfully treated, but it can’t be cured,” is how Goffinet, a native of France, describes the situation of people who are HIV positive. In fact, people infected with HIV have to take medication their whole lives because the virus reappears if medication is stopped. The virus hides in dormant HIV cells by smuggling its genetic information into the chromosomes of these cells. Goffinet now wants to reawaken the dormant virus-carrying cells so that they start producing the virus again. “We will then try to kill these reactivated cells – either with the help of the body’s own immune system or through a novel treatment that uses the communication between the virus and the immune system,” is how she sums up her ambitious goal. “And it must be successful 100 percent of the time, because a single remaining HIV-positive cell is probably enough to allow the virus to start replicating itself again.

Researchers have known about the chikungunya virus for some time now as a result of disease outbreaks in Africa and Southeast Asia. It is considered an emerging virus because the infection rate is growing around the world. Like the dengue virus, it is transmitted by the Aedes mosquito, which is slowly making its way from southern to northern Europe. Those infected suffer from painful joint inflammation and bouts of fever. Normally, the immune system of the host defends itself against the virus and the symptoms abate within one to two weeks. But the infection may become chronic in some cases, with patients experiencing repeated bouts of joint inflammation. This frequently leads to persistent joint pain, which causes those affected to walk hunched over and limits their ability to move about, often leaving them unable to work. “We want to find out why some people fully recover from the virus and why the infection turns chronic in other people. Little is still known about the virus’s infection cycle; there is neither a vaccine nor special medicines,” explains Goffinet. “We know so much about HIV in comparison: There are not only established laboratory methods and laboratory systems, but also reagents and an effective treatment regimen. In the case of chikungunya, we’re largely starting from scratch. That’s what appeals to me!”

Christine Goffinet was born in France but at the age of eleven moved to Hamburg, where she completed her Abitur and studied biology at the city’s university. For her PhD she went to Heidelberg University, specifically Department of Virology, where she developed a small animal model for HIV infection. That proved difficult because the virus does not multiply in rats or mice, which meant that the model inadequately described the progression of the disease, especially the massive loss of immune cells. The rodents also do not contract AIDS in the model created by Goffinet, but their genetically modified immune cells do become infected with the virus, enabling researchers to test drugs that aim to prevent exactly that from happening. She then established her first research group at Ulm University, which also focused on HIV research. Three years later came the call from the Hannover Medical School, where she was appointed junior professor. It was during this period that Goffinet began to study the chikungunya virus in addition to the HIV virus. Christine Goffinet is married and has a daughter.