Research Group Viral Hepatitis and Liver Cancer

Headed by: Prof. Dr. Ralf Bartenschlager

Prof. Dr. Ralf Bartenschlager

Prof. Dr. Ralf Bartenschlager

IIC, INF 242, room A2.203

Phone: +49 6221 42-4972

Contact: r.bartenschlager[at]dkfz.de

Our overall goal

Virus infections of the liver are of high medical relevance, because they are often associated with serious liver damage, including liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Up to now, 5 viruses with an exclusive hepatotropism have been identified, which are therefore called hepatitis viruses. Of these the hepatitis B virus (HBV) and the hepatitis C virus (HCV) are most relevant because of their global prevalence. WHO estimates that ~230 mio. people are chronically infected with HBV and ~150 mio. with HCV. Although infections with these viruses most often are asymptomatic, persistently infected individuals have a high risk to develop serious liver disease. The molecular mechanism underlying development of liver cirrhosis and HCC are poorly understood. It is widely believed that the immune response induced by persistent infection triggers chronic inflammation. This immune response is unable to eliminate the virus, but causes cell damage and death, thus creating space in the liver for compensatory cell proliferation. During these cell divisions mutations can occur; their generation is facilitated by the chronic inflammatory milieu. In addition, HBV and HCV induce multiple perturbations in infected cells, contributing most likely to tumor formation. Additional, tumor-promoting factors are metabolic syndrome, high body-mass index and consumption of cytotoxic agents such as alcohol or DNA-damaging substances such as aflatoxins contained in contaminated food.
For these reasons, understanding liver tumor formation requires an interdisciplinary research approach, combining expertise in virology, cell biology and immunology. We employ state-of-the-art cell culture models and validate obtained results by using infected human tissues and innovative animal models. Our goal is to decipher the mechanisms driving hepatitis virus-associated liver cancer with the aim to identify novel targets of use for the development of prophylactic and therapeutic treatment modalities.
Our research topics are:

I.    Cell biology of hepatitis B virus infection: towards curative approaches of chronic hepatitis B
II.    Establishment of immune-competent mouse models for HBV and HCV infection
III.    Induction of antiviral immune responses against hepatitis viruses and viral countermeasures

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