Interview with Prof. Chiara Romagnani

Since 2009, you are leading a research group at the DRFZ focusing on innate immunology. Recently, you have been appointed professor for Immunology and Inflammation at the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. Congratulations. Your professorship entails being the scientific head of the Leibniz ScienceCampus Chronic Inflammation. What is the idea behind this joint initiative?

The Leibniz ScienceCampus Chronic Inflammation is a joint platform assembling the scientific and clinical excellence at the DRFZ and the Charité University, working in the field chronic inflammatory diseases (CID), such as Rheumatoid Arthritis or Crohn´s Disease. CID affect about 10 % of the population. Our goal is to better understand the common mechanisms behind different CIDs and to translate therapeutic concepts from one disease to another. One example is a recent off label study of the team of Tobias Alexander, a clinical scientist at the Charité and Campus-PI, where they successfully treated patients suffering from severe Lupus erythematosus with Daratumumab, a monoclonal antibody approved for the treatment of multiple myeloma. (link to publication)

How did the Campus accomplish this success story?

The most important contribution of the Leibniz ScienceCampus Chronic Inflammation is to create a hub where our clinicians and basic scientists regularly meet to discuss their results, share their experiences and develop new concepts. Both sides highly benefit from this construct: the daily observation of disease courses and treatment outcomes raises questions that can be addressed experimentally in the lab; vice versa, promising new scientific results and therapeutic concepts developed in experimental models can be applied to design new small clinical studies. With this expertise and the available cutting-edge technologies to study inflammatory cells on a single cell level, the Leibniz ScienceCampus Chronic Inflammation provides an ideal and unique setting to study the pathogenesis of chronic inflammation and develop new therapies.

You have successfully applied for a second funding period. What do you aim to accomplish within the next years?

In the previous funding period, besides many scientific contributions, we have successfully established the central structures of the Campus: a joint DRFZ-Charité governance and appointments of Liaison Research Groups, training programs for young researchers, and series of clubs and seminars aiming at strengthening the scientific exchange within the Berlin expert community as well as to promote public outreach about CID. The long-term scientific focus of the Campus is the identification and therapeutic targeting of the cells and mechanisms controlling the initiation and chronicity of inflammation in different tissues. To achieve this aim, in the second funding period we investigate the cell signatures predicting response to therapy for a patient tailored treatment. For example, in a joint project with Tilmann Kallinich, pediatric rheumatologist at the Charité and new partner of the Campus, and with Mir-Farzin Mashreghi, group leader at the DRFZ, we are currently investigating the cellular hallmarks of Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA), the most common rheumatic disease in children. For unknown reasons, JIA spontaneously resolves in some patients, whereas in others joint inflammation persists and recurs.  A better understanding of the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying this phenomenon, the identification of predictive markers of disease recurrence and the follow-up of these patient cohorts by the DRFZ Epidemiology units, will be crucial to ameliorate patient diagnosis and treatment.

We believe by combining our unique scientific expertise and high innovative technologies with excellent clinical partnerships, we can move the field forward and have a real impact for patient care.

One priority of the LSC Chronic Inflammation is to promote young researchers. What does the Campus actually do for them?

In order to generate structures to address the challenge of CID on the long run, an important aim of the Campus is to develop and sustain excellent training opportunities for the next generation of scientists and clinicians in the field. Already in the previous funding period, we have established the Leibniz Graduate School on Chronic Inflammation for both, PhD and MD, as well as a the Leibniz-College on Chronic Inflammation for PostDocs, which is offering skill courses and mentoring to guide young scientists at the early stage of their career towards independency. Moreover, the Summer Schools on Chronic Inflammation brings together young medical academics in their first years of practical education (Ärzte in Weiterbildung) and students and PostDocs working experimentally in the field of chronic inflammation. The training portfolio of the Campus will also promote joint initiatives with the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology in Oxford, a leader partner institute in the field of rheumatic diseases and CID.

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