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ERC funding: How muscle supports antiviral immunity

No. 18 | 22/03/2022 | by Koh

With its "ERC Consolidator Grants", the European Research Council (ERC) supports excellent scientists in expanding their independent careers. Guoliang Cui from the German Cancer Research Center can now look forward to this prestigious ERC grant. The immunologist will use the two million euros in funding to research how skeletal muscle supports the immune system during chronic viral infections. Cui heads a research unit based at DKFZ as the sponsor of the Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON) Mainz.


Skeletal muscle is not normally considered part of the immune system. However, scientists have long observed that the loss of muscle mass associated with chronic viral infections is often accompanied by dysfunction of T cells. The way in which muscle affects T cells in this process is as yet unknown.

Guoliang Cui is an expert on the cellular and metabolic signals that promote or suppress immune T cell function. He is studying the links between immune functions and chronic viral infection in mice. In the animals, he has found that skeletal muscle counteracts the dysfunction of T cells: CD8 T cells, also known as cytotoxic T cells, migrate from the spleen into the muscle, where their antiviral function and ability to proliferate are restored. The revitalized T cells return to the lymphoid organs and participate again in the defense against viral infection.

Funded by the ERC grant, Cui now wants to investigate in detail how the muscle affects the function of the T cells and how it directs their migration through the body. To this end, the immunologist has already identified a variety of candidate molecules that accumulate in the muscle and may be involved in these processes.

Cui has also observed that mice with especially high muscle mass through genetic engineering also harbor a particularly large number of exhausted T cells in their muscles - and, on the other hand, have a particularly low virus titer. So could it be that increasing muscle mass has the potential to improve immune responses to chronic infections? That's another question Cui now plans to address with the help of the ERC grant.

Guoliang Cui received his PhD from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai in 2010. He then worked in a research department at the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline until 2012. From 2012 to 2016, he went to Yale University as a postdoctoral fellow. Supported by a Helmholtz Young Investigator Award from the Helmholtz Association, he subsequently established the Junior Research Group T Cell Metabolism at DKFZ, which was transformed into a department at HI-TRON Mainz in 2021.

This year, 2 652 ERC Consolidator Grant applications were submitted, of which 313 (about twelve percent) were funded. With 61 approved applications across all disciplines, Germany is the frontrunner in this year's call.

* In HI-TRON Mainz, the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), TRON gGmbH as a subsidiary of the University Medical Center Mainz, the University Medical Center Mainz and the Johannes Guttenberg University Mainz cooperate. The aim of the partnership is to develop effective immunotherapies, identify new biomarkers for the treatment of tumor diseases and thus further advance personalized cancer therapy.

With more than 3,000 employees, the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) is Germany’s largest biomedical research institute. DKFZ scientists identify cancer risk factors, investigate how cancer progresses and develop new cancer prevention strategies. They are also developing new methods to diagnose tumors more precisely and treat cancer patients more successfully. The DKFZ's Cancer Information Service (KID) provides patients, interested citizens and experts with individual answers to questions relating to cancer.

To transfer promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improve the prognosis of cancer patients, the DKFZ cooperates with excellent research institutions and university hospitals throughout Germany:

  • National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT, 6 sites)
  • German Cancer Consortium (DKTK, 8 sites)
  • Hopp Children's Cancer Center (KiTZ) Heidelberg
  • Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON Mainz) - A Helmholtz Institute of the DKFZ
  • DKFZ-Hector Cancer Institute at the University Medical Center Mannheim
  • National Cancer Prevention Center (jointly with German Cancer Aid)
The DKFZ is 90 percent financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and 10 percent by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers.


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