Christine Goffinet is LSTM’s new Professor in Virology. She joins us from Charite - Universitätsmedizin Berlin in Germany and is part of a strategic initiative to develop our research base in virology. LSTM has recognised the increasing importance of emerging/ re-emerging viral diseases and the need to strengthen our research portfolio in this area if we are to deliver on our mission to ‘improve health outcomes in disadvantaged populations globally through partnership in research and education’.
Hi, Christine. Welcome to LSTM. First, can you tell us a bit about your background and research interest?
Yes, sure. I have a Biology diploma from the University of Hamburg, a Dr. rer. nat. from the University of Heidelberg and conducted some 15-years research in the field of molecular virology at various places. My key expertise is in elucidating virus-host interplay at the molecular and cellular level. I want to understand how and to what extent cell-intrinsic innate immunity and defence mechanisms can interfere with virus infection and prevent virus spread. However, those viruses that cause most of the trouble have evolved measures to counteract our cellular defences - they are sophisticated enough to deal with our immune system. So, it's effectively an arms race between hosts and viruses, and we would like to exploit these findings in order to tip the balance towards the host and against the virus, and eventually develop effective antivirals against emerging viruses and advance HIV-1 cure approaches.
Can you tell us a bit about your new role here?
I will be Professor in Virology. There's strong expertise in microbiology and parasitology at LSTM but there is an obvious need to establish a competitive virology research programme, and this will be my task.
I think that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic impressively demonstrated the devastating impacts that viruses can have on all of us. But the threat from different viruses has existed for a long time, especially in countries of the Global South. HIV-1/AIDS, for example, has been devastating and continues to be so and really shows the need to reinforce research in virology. Arboviruses, which are transmitted via mosquitoes, are a known burden in several countries of the Global South, with increasing relevance worldwide due to global warming. Also, last year´s monkeypox virus outbreak is an example of how viruses that are endemic and specific to nations of the Global South have been neglected – at least until they make the jump and appear in the Global North. So, it really shows how important the negative impact of virus infections to individuals and societies is and that intensifying virology research is urgently required.
I understand that you will be looking at HIV
Yes, a lot of research around HIV-1 is looking for a cure, since we don't have one and there is no vaccine against HIV-1. However, most cure research is actually conducted in populations which are not those most affected by the virus. It is based on HIV-1 strains of the subtype B which is over-represented in Europe and North America, and cells from study participants from Europe or the US. I think it's very important to consider that specific population differences affect the potential success of cure strategies currently being tested, such as circulation of other HIV-1 subtypes and exposure to other pathogens which we do not see in Europe. For example, the high TB incidence in South Africa has to be taken into account when designing HIV-1 cure approaches for that population, and I think has not been done enough so far. One part of my team´s HIV-1 cure research will be to include parameters and aspects that are specific to populations most affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, hopefully leading to advancement of HIV-1 cure strategies in general, and specifically of approaches that have a high chance to work in populations which have the most urgent need.
Why are you making the move from Berlin to Liverpool? What are you particularly looking forward to about working at LSTM?
First of all, I'm really curious to work in another academic environment. I have been in Germany for many years, and I've always dreamt of experiencing a different system.
Also, I'm looking forward to the prospect of doing research in an academic institution that focuses on tropical diseases, which has several established collaborations with key institutes in the Global South, like Kenya and Malawi, and which really addresses the need of those people most affected. As I mentioned, I have done a lot of basic research in the past, but I understand that at LSTM researchers readily translate their findings into something that is clinically applicable or at least testable, and that these translational pipelines seem to be much easier to access or are better prepared. In Germany, we perceive the UK as being much better equipped for translating basic research findings into something clinically applicable, and this is something I want to learn and apply in my own research.
It's LSTM’s 125th anniversary this year and we are thinking about how we bridge the gap in health and scientific capacity between the Global North and Global South. Is that going to be part of your role?
Yes, that is certainly something that I want to develop. I think it's our joint responsibility to tackle the gaps in health and scientific capacity between the Global North and South. We are all aware that these gaps have also been determined by political injustices during the colonial era. My father was born in Ivory Coast, and in my own family we have been discussing and reflecting on key aspects of this time. I find it important to be part of a European institution that reflects on and questions its own role during colonial history and the world today for the goal of a better and equitable future. I would really like to be part of this mission. I think that the Global North and South can learn a lot from each other, and I hope I will be able to learn and to adapt my research towards this goal.
That’s great. Thanks for your time.