“Research is not an end in itself”

A lab visit to Prof. Stephan Ludwig / interview series by the Cells in Motion Cluster of Excellence
Virologist Prof. Stephan Ludwig is a member of the Cells in Motion Cluster of Excellence and heads the Institute of Molecular Virology at Münster University.
© WWU/Peter Grewer

Prof. Ludwig, what scientific topic are you working on right now?

At our Institute we study viruses. It is our main interest how they interact with cells and organisms – because viruses always need cells which host them so that they can multiply. Ultimately, we want to better understand the molecular replication mechanisms of viruses, i.e. the mechanisms by which they multiply, and, as a result, find possible approaches for new antiviral treatments and drugs. We are particular looking at the signalling pathways which a virus activates when it enters a cell. Understanding these signalling pathways will provide new insights how the cell responds and how the virus changes in the cell. We’re currently tracking down a certain signalling pathway which is activated by, among other things, influenza viruses – the classical MAP kinase cascade. If this cascade is blocked by means of specific inhibitors, the result is that the virus can no longer multiply. Our findings have already led to the establishment of a small start-up company which is studying how these inhibitors – which already exist to fight other diseases – can now be used for influenza. 

What characterizes you personally as a scientist?

My understanding of my work as a researcher is to gain insights and find truths at a really deeper level. Being a researcher is simply a fantastic job because you can immediately put your ideas into practice in the lab and you’re always abreast of the times. At the same time, I never lose sight of the fact that research is not an end in itself. For me, it’s not enough to understand molecular mechanisms just for its own sake. We have a social responsibility to use the findings from our research – for example, to find new treatments or vaccines.

What is your greatest aim as a scientist?

My greatest aim is that one day people will be able to get a highly effective drug at the pharmacy that is based on the results of my own basic research efforts. Of course, that shouldn’t be the only aim you concentrate on. But it’s the icing on the cake if, at the end, you can create something that will last. But of course, getting there is a long and rocky road. 

What’s your favourite toy for research – and what is it able to do?

High-resolution microscopic methods. Because viruses are so small, you can normally only see them under an electron microscope. However, the possibilities we have in imaging have increased enormously as a result of the Cluster of Excellence and the collaborations this has given rise to. Using special labelling techniques and so-called STORM microscopy – which is a special, super-resolution fluorescence microscopy – we are now able to visualize important viral structures and their interaction partners in an infected cell. What really impresses me too are the flow cytometric methods, which enable us to measure a large number of markers and parameters on and in the cell and very quickly determine the activation status of cells.

Can you remember your happiest moment as a scientist?

I can still very clearly remember one moment when I suddenly knew, “We’ve discovered something important here.” It was when we looked through the microscope and saw that certain agents in an infected cell led to a completely new distribution of viral components. Up to this point, it had not been at all possible to explain why these agents actually inhibited the virus from multiplying. When we were then able to publish our findings in the journal “Nature Cell Biology”, and our study even made it onto the front cover, those were two more very happy moments

And what was your biggest frustration?

Frustrations are a part of a researcher’s everyday life. Every time you change your location, for example, you begin with a few moments of frustration – for instance, when you assemble the familiar technologies in a new lab … and suddenly things don’t work which have always worked up to then. At the moment I’m very frustrated that our progress in our research work is being hindered to a very large extent by statutory requirements which are becoming ever more stringent and sometimes incomprehensible – for example, as regards our research using animals. Often, we spend more time writing applications, reports or comments than doing real research work. It’s really frustrating, because our aim is to do something positive for society. Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t handle the issue of animal experiments in a very sensitive way. In my opinion, all researchers have an ethical and moral responsibility and should ask themselves, in every experiment they conduct, whether it’s really necessary or not.

Which scientific phenomenon still regularly fascinates you today?

What happens in the body when an embryo develops without being rejected by the mother’s immune system is an incredible medical phenomenon in my eyes. The processes associated with it are still not understood in their entirety by any means. What also fascinates me are interactions between the brain and certain processes in the body: the gut-brain axis, for example, or the brain-skin axis

What big scientific question would you like to have an answer to? 

How do these tiny little viruses manage to transform a cell in the body to the extent that they can multiply there and make an organism ill – kill it, even? That’s why we want to have a comprehensive understanding of the interaction between the individual “players” – in other words, between the pathogen, the cell and the organism

How much artistry, creativity and craftsmanship is there in your scientific work?

For me, art means seeing the things you do as being beautiful – in other words, that your own activities have an aesthetic value in themselves. Every biomedical researcher also has a feeling for the artistic in connection with his or her experiments and the images and results they produce. For a mathematician it is not only important to find a proof – it is, at the same time, just as important that the formula in question should be “beautiful”. Just as a chemist recognizes and esteems the aesthetics of a molecular lattice.