BMS Guest: Dr. Cesar Muñoz-Fontela


Cesar Muñoz-Fontela, Emerging Viruses HPI HamburgWhen Dr. Cesar Muñoz-Fontela comes to work he sometimes undresses to go through several showers. He further disinfects his skin in a vacuum room. Now he is ready to squeeze himself into the "moon suit" , a pressurized capsule around the body. What for some of us sounds like a sequence from an Alien sequel, for the researchers in the biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratories is a common routine. Here, they perform experiments on some of the deadliest viruses: Ebola, Lassa, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever and others, to understand better how they infect us (the virulence) and how we protect ourselves (the immunity) from them. Fifteen BSL-4 laboratories exist in the world, four of them are in Germany. At the Heinrich Pette Institut in Hamburg Dr. Muñoz-Fontela leads the Emerging Viruses Junior Reserach Group .

Muñoz-Fontela is a prize-winning scientist, a great lecturer and an adventurous spirit. He readily travels to the source of viral infections, like West Africa, where he works with the blood samples of infected patients. And the "moon suit" ? Well, not there. In West African laboratories, one relies on a protective mask and the deities! ...

1.You are working with some of the deadliest viruses under extremely restricted conditions. What is your motivation?

It is not as bad as it looks! It is just a normal job where you have to have some precaution. I work on neglected diseases - not so many immunologists are interested in them. I had a chance to embark upon it and now I am glad I did: I have a feeling that my research can have a huge impact on the people suffering from them.

2. What is the role of glycans in the virus - immune system interaction?

The viruses I work with all have glycoproteins on the surface (Hemorrhagic fever, Ebola). Meaning, the virus will attach to our immune cells with its glycan part. There are identified receptors recognizing glycans known to be important for the virus entry  - we should seriously consider to target glycans in our research.

3. What is the most daring immunological theory you have encountered in your career?

Definitely, the most daring idea is that we need to suppress the immune system of a patient, for him to fight the viral disease better. That is so counterintuitive! However, a lot of data is supporting it. My bet would be that the future therapies would consist of an active immune suppression and an anti-viral drug.

4. You showed us the data involving IFNs in the virus-immune system recognition. Some IFNs are also responsible for the allergic response. Are we, actually, allergic to viruses?

(laughing) We are a little bit allergic to viruses, especially the ones for which we do not have pre-existing immunity. In hemorrhagic fever in particular, the shock associated with sever disease is, in some aspects, very similar  to the anaphylactic shock or even to the septic shock. It is an excessive aberrant immune response that leads to a shock stadium and multiorgan failure.

5. What would you like to see achieved during your career span? Say, you retire, look back and say: "Ok, this is a big progress - this was not available at my beginnings".

To be able to treat the patients in Africa with the same resources we have in Europe!

6. Any scientific theory you would like to see confirmed?

Hmmm. It would be really interesting to see if the theory of building vaccines that produce broadly neutralizing antiviral antibodies is possible. Especially for HIV and Influenza. It works very nice in the lab settings and people showed that the broadly neutralizing antiviral antibodies can actually be produced, the question is whether that can be applied to humans. This would mean that you get 2 -3 flu vaccine shots and you are protected forever!

7. The most exciting paper you have read recently?

There was a recent paper of the new compound that blocks the replication of different viruses in the hemorrhagic fever family, Ebola, Lassa, Crimean-Congo, even not related viruses like Influenza. It is similar to Rilpivirine. It was published in Nature and if its true, I might be jobless! Theoretically, it might cure every virus infection ....

8. The next thing we could expect from your lab?

Hopefully, a paper! About the improved influenza vaccine. Also, the confirmation that the inhibition of  T cells function is very important and a major cause of sever Lassa fever.