Maria J.G.T. Vehreschild is a physician and scientist and represents the archetype “clinician-scientist” like few other. She has been Head of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Frankfurt University Hospital for one year and coordinates the DZIF research field “Healthcare-associated and Antibiotic-resistant bacterial Infections”. At only 39 years of age, this mother of two has an impressive career.
“As a female working in the field of medicine, I have always expected to have to work twice as hard in order to reach my goals. This is what my father advised me to do and it has shaped my path,” explains Maria Vehreschild. “Charm may possibly have also helped, but ultimately the scientific content matters,” she adds with a smile. Maria Vehreschild has dedicated herself to research in the field of infectious diseases with a focus on the prevention and treatment of infections caused by multidrug-resistant bacteria.
Her journey has included several different stages and some obstacles. She enjoys travelling, as seen by the huge maps of South America and Africa hanging on the walls in her newly painted office in Frankfurt. A map of Asia is also on the way. “The diseases that we treat here come from all over the world, which these maps mean to symbolise.”
She grew up in Hamburg and moved abroad to study. Her objective had always been to seek to help people and consequently she studied psychology in New York. However, after a short while, she opted to study medicine seeing more opportunities for herself in this field. She completed her medical studies in Berlin with various long academic exchanges spent in France and in Brazil. After her State Examinations she completed her Dr. med. at the TU Munich. Her first position was in Cologne where she also completed her specialty training.
“I am a workaholic,” Maria Vehreschild admits. “However, luckily, I had to change a little due to my children,” she says. “The reason I could continue to pursue my career without restrictions is also thanks to the DZIF. Two maternity leave stipends enabled me to resume my work as both, a clinician and a scientist after the birth of my children. This was crucial and also gave me the necessary support needed during these vulnerable phases.” It was certainly also key that the childrens’ father supported her in this. The physician and scientist Jörg Janne Vehreschild, who holds a DZIF professorship, now works in a position shared between Frankfurt and Cologne. A dual-career family – this couple demonstrates that this can indeed work.
Besides the stipends, Maria Vehreschild also considers the DZIF’s networking structure to be of particular importance. “I have found many professional partners through the DZIF,” she reports. Together with scientists and physicians she now works to curb the consequences of the spread of multidrug-resistant bacteria. “I am particularly interested in how the human body can inhibit dangerous pathogens from causing infections,” she explains. The key here might be our microbiota – the microorganisms colonizing our gut, lungs, skin and urinary tract and how they influence pathogens. “It is about replacing pathogenic bacteria with other bacteria and/or preventing them from residing there in the first place.”
This scientist has already taken a first big step. She has successfully conducted transfers of bacteria from healthy donor stool, so-called microbiota transfers, to treat patients suffering from severe diarrhoea due to Clostridium difficile infections thus preventing recurrence. Vehreschild is certain that this secondary prevention measure already demonstrates that the concept works in principle. Over the past few years, she has established a so-called GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) Facility: a laboratory in which bacteria-based preparations can be manufactured safely and with highest quality standards. “As soon as this facility has been completely set-up, we can conduct targeted clinical trials with these preparations.”
“We need to find alternative solutions to the problem of increasing multidrug-resistance,” Maria Vehreschild emphasises. The pursuit to find new antibiotics only presents one solution. Besides improved hygiene in hospitals and the sensible use of antibiotics, known as antimicrobial stewardship, she considers microbiome research to be one of the most important alternatives. Although this field of research is ambitious, considering that there are approximately 100 trillion bacteria in the human gut, lungs, the skin and the urinary tract, this certainly does not deter Vehreschild. She firmly believes that in depth research in this field will allow for the discovery of new strategies for supressing multidrug-resistant bacteria. This young scientist and physician envisions a clear goal: “I would like to develop a microbiota-based therapy to improve human health.”