On the offensive against viruses and bacteria
Research, prevention and control of bacterial and viral infections: this is what the study of infectious diseases is all about. It’s an area that is booming right now – and not just because of the pandemic. The fact that the field of infectious diseases has developed so rapidly has a lot to do with research into HIV.
Let’s not forget: an HIV infection is still not completely curable. But drug therapy against HIV is currently so successful that it allows for an almost normal life expectancy, and a largely stable life. Research over the past 40 years has made it possible for HIV patients today to take just one tablet a day instead of many.
Significant progress has also been made in the detection of viruses since the 1980s, when identification of HIV was achieved with cell culture. The hepatitis C virus was already identified primarily by molecular means, and the methods are now so far advanced that it was possible to identify the 2019 SARS-CoV-2 pathogen in less than a month. This is mainly thanks to the discovery of polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This technique, which became known to the general public particularly through COVID-19 and was awarded the Nobel Prize, ultimately also made it possible to characterise the human genome within a few years. Despite all this progress, however, alongside all the technical developments in infectious diseases, viruses themselves will probably also develop.
This is due to the fact that, compared to bacterial pathogens, viral pathogens infect the human organism even more frequently: viruses have no metabolism of their own, and are dependent on other cells to live and multiply. Once a virus enters the body, the infected cells themselves are used for reproduction, and the host cell subsequently produces thousands of new viruses. Protected by the cells, antibodies struggle to put up a defence against the intruders.
Viruses are constantly changing, making them difficult to detect. Some lie dormant in the body and are only reactivated in old age, for example, or suddenly produce severe diseases in certain individuals. So in infectious diseases too, then, we keep researching.