Infectious Disease Specialist Christian Keller receives the 2020 Memento Research Award

© Jörg Schaaber

Dr Christian Keller, from Philipps-University Marburg and the German Center for Infection Research, and Dr Anke Osterloh, Research Center Borstel, were awarded this year’s "Memento Award for neglected diseases”. With this award, worth 5,000 euros, the international jury honours their contributions and commitment to rickettsia research.

Rickettsia infections are globally ubiquitous and affect many people, particularly in poorer regions of world. An increasing number of cases and a growing spread of these bacteria have been observed over the past few years. Tsutsugamushi fever, which is endemic in tropical Asian regions, is estimated to cause over one million infections per year, making it one of the most common diseases caused by this group of pathogens. It is caused by Orientia tsutsugamushi bacteria and can become life threatening. However, many people do not know of rickettsia infections. “Neglected also often means unknown. Only few people are aware of rickettsia infections even though they are important pathogens which can often cause severe and even life-threatening diseases on all continents,” says jury member Prof. August Stich, Head of the Department of Tropical Medicine at the Medical Mission Hospital Würzburg, in his laudatory speech.

In many countries, there is a lack of reliable, broadly available and affordable diagnostics for basic disease management and treatment with suitable antibiotics. “In Africa and Asia, diagnostic procedures can frequently only be conducted in expensive external laboratories outside the hospital setting. Patient care of people with low incomes can therefore barely be managed adequately,” says infectious disease specialist Christian Keller from the Institute of Virology in Marburg. Rickettsia infections can often become fatal if the treatment is incorrect or delayed.

Over the past few years Christian Keller and Anke Osterloh have developed new laboratory models for infections with Orientia tsutsugamushi and Rickettsia typhi, two of the most commonly occurring rickettsia worldwide. They initially started this work at the former Department of Immunology at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Diseases in Hamburg. “These models have contributed substantially towards a better understanding of immune responses to rickettsia and now provide us with a basis for testing new active agents and potential vaccines,” both researchers say. In these models, Keller and Osterloh showed that the agent Corallopyronin A, developed at the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF), was highly effective against different types of rickettsia. They demonstrated that these so-called “switch inhibitors” form a new class of antibiotics for treating rickettsia infections. They also developed Rickettsia typhi, a first transgenic strain that serves as an important instrument for developing new treatment approaches and vaccines.

Alongside identifying new agents and developing a first vaccine, conducting translational research that rapidly translates research findings into clinical applications is an important objective for both Anke Osterloh und Christian Keller. Identifying biomarkers for severe courses of infection and conducting clinical trials are in the foreground of this mission. Important collaborating institutions for this work are located in Nepal, Ghana, Cameroon and Madagascar.

Background information on the Memento Award

The Memento Award for neglected diseases was awarded for the seventh time on 11/03/2020. The aim of the award initiators – Doctors without Borders, Bread for the World, BUKO Pharma-Kampagne and the DAHW German Leprosy and Tuberculosis Relief Association – is to create awareness for neglected and poverty-related diseases which affect millions of people worldwide yet for which no adequate vaccines, diagnostics and drugs are available. In their own press release the Memento Association state it a duty of the German government to provide more funding for research on neglected diseases, in alignment with Germany’s new leading role in global health.

Christian Keller is the sixth DZIF scientist to be honoured with the Memento Award, following Jürgen May, Achim Hörauf, Carsten Köhler, Gisela Bretzel and Christoph Lange. In the DZIF research consortium “Neglected Tropical Diseases” the scientists strengthen their commitment in this field.

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