Doctor and data guru at the DZIF

Jörg Janne Vehreschild is senior physician at the Department of Internal Medicine in Cologne and on a DZIF professorship where he is responsible for HIV research cohorts.

© MedizinFotoKöln/Dorothea Hensen

Jörg Janne Vehreschild started his professional career as a programmer. However, he soon decided to pursue his second passion and began his medical studies a year later. Today, at only 39, Vehreschild is senior physician at the Department of Internal Medicine in Cologne and on a DZIF professorship where is responsible for HIV research cohorts. Informatics, his first hobby, once again plays an important role in his work.

“I was able to write my first line of programming before I could even write a German sentence,” Jörg Janne Vehreschild remembers with a grin. This was when he was five years old. At school, everything that had to do with numbers was easy for him and before he completed his secondary schooling, the ‘Abitur’, in 1997 in Siegburg near Bonn, he was already earning a tidy little sum with programming.

His future path seemed clear, given his talents, but it all turned out differently. A longer period of illness in his childhood led Jörg Janne to inadvertently encounter the medical world and shone an extremely positive light on the medical profession. For this reason, after his Abitur, he decided initially to do his civil service on a children’s cancer ward where he got on with the little patients like a house on fire. “Possibly better than I did with my parents, they were very overprotective,” he remembers, which he can now understand better with two small children of his own at home.

Medical student with additional income

A year later he was certain: he wanted to become a doctor, despite his mathematical talents and his disinclination to learning school biology. Vehreschild studied medicine in Bonn from 1999 to 2005, alongside which he worked as a freelance database and software developer. A four-month traineeship in South Africa led him to infectology and he completed his specialist training in internal medicine, haematology and oncology, with infectology as an additional title.

As a doctor he initially purposely avoided revealing his programming talents. “The technical state of medical informatics was woefully out of date and I was worried that I would always be called in the event of data chaos,” says Vehreschild. However, the data still always ended up on his desk, perhaps because of his ponytail, which was in fashion for computer freaks, or maybe simply because of his friendly and approachable character. Data became an increasingly central focus over the course of his medical career, as translational research is stranded without the availability of carefully collected and documented data and biosamples, both for HIV patient studies and the rational use of antibiotics.

Antibiotic Stewardship as the “most important option in infection research”

Early on in his medical practice, Vehreschild was committed to using antibiotics sensibly in daily hospital life. Together with colleagues, he founded the Antibiotic Stewardship Program at the Cologne University Hospital, which he still heads scientifically, long before the term “multidrug-resistance” had made the headlines. “I believe the approach of sensible and rational use of antibiotics is currently one of the most important options we have in infection research.” As a senior physician specialised in infectious disease medicine, Vehreschild supervises the hospital’s consultation services and is always called upon to supervise complicated infections. Consequently, experience has shown him the importance of using antibiotics sensibly in hospitals. And this is only possible with meticulous data collection regarding antibiotic use.

HIV research cohorts are a core theme in his DZIF professorship. In 2013, as head of a junior research group, Vehreschild took on the rather challenging task of harmonising epidemiological data from HIV research, both clinical samples and patient data, and to prepare them for a broad range of uses. “The heterogeneity of the HIV data collection was almost scary,” says Vehreschild. “When HIV and AIDS became popular in the nineties and received plenty of research funding, every hospital quickly complied their own data sets.”

Jörg Janne Vehreschild (left side) and his team: Bernd Franke, Annika Löhnet, Shanthiya Sathiyanantharajah, Nick Schulze, Carolin Jakob, Sebastian Heimann, Justine Uhe, Melanie Stecher, Angelina Lagodny

© MedizinFotoKöln/Dorothea Hensen

Data exchange with HENRY and HIOBS

Vehreschild suggested disclosing the data in exchange for attaining a centralised standardised database, which was, however, not warmly received. Vehreschild approached this problem pragmatically and decided to create a decentralised system. Consequently, his junior research group created an HIV platform—a unique collection of well-characterised clinical samples that can be requested via a central registry. “Additionally, we were able to establish simple data exchange and a joint interface with the Robert Koch Institute which has a national HIV cohort.” At this point he very enthusiastically talks about the developed software called HENRY and, even as a layperson, one begins to understand that programming can be fun.

The established HIV infection research platform is now ready for translational research. Meanwhile, 20 university hospitals and HIV practices are members of the network which is constantly growing. A patient consent form was developed jointly with all members and is being used as a standard. “This is really innovative as it facilitates sample exchange and, with this, future research also on an international level,” explains Vehreschild. Approximately 20 projects that use this HIV platform are already underway.

Stopping HIV shortly after infection

Vehreschild describes “Treating primary HIV infection”, a project conducted jointly with colleagues from the Hannover Medical School, as one of the most important “showcase” projects. The scientists assume that the period of time shortly after HIV infection bears the highest chance of removing the virus almost completely and preventing reservoir formation. These are major problems in the fight against HIV: the viruses hide in an infected person’s immune cells where they cannot be targeted by drugs and it is this process which is not yet very advanced shortly after infection. The translational HIV platform now enables investigations of these issues using cohorts of primary HIV patients. Vehreschild is happy, “It is working very well. We have no difficulty recruiting the desired number of patients.”

Senior physician, scientist and leader of various working groups—is there time for family, hobbies and travelling? He is almost surprised at the question, as it is evidently not an issue for him. Perhaps family and work are more intertwined because he is married to an equally enthusiastic scientist and doctor. Maria Vehreschild also works as a physician at the Cologne University Hospital, as well as at the DZIF research field ‘Healthcare-associated and Antibiotic-resistant bacterial Infections’. However, work is certainly not always in the foreground. “We bought an old farm together with friends a few years ago, where we spend time building, sawing and pottering about whenever possible.” Of course, he always has his notebook with him because he simply enjoys finding solutions to challenging programming questions.

The DZIF should have enough such challenges for him in this field in future. Jörg Janne Vehreschild appreciates the opportunities that the DZIF and the professorship offer. “Through the DZIF, I have the opportunity to find a network and communicate with scientists and doctors from all over Germany. If it were up to him, young people in particular would be more involved in coordinating functions, for which the Vehreschilds are setting a good example.

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