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[Article series] The experts behind Luxembourg's COVID-19 fight

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Published on Friday, 10 April 2020

Prof. Paul Wilmes (PW) is Principal Investigator at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) of the University of Luxembourg, where people with broad and diverse backgrounds focus on understanding the mechanisms of disease. Prof. Wilmes is specialised in microbiology and his research group at the LCSB studies how microbial communities impact our health. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, he is deputy spokesperson for the COVID-19 Task Force of Research Luxembourg. As the representative of the University of Luxembourg in the Task Force, he is in charge of coordination between researchers working in the different focus areas, directing certain projects reflecting an immediate need as well as the liaison with the Ministries, hospitals and research institutions in Luxembourg. In this short interview, he also discusses his expertise and involvement in ongoing COVID-19 projects.

1)     Could you tell us more about your background and expertise?

PW: I have a background in microbiology and I developed my expertise in this field in part over the years I spent abroad (UK, Germany and USA). I came back to my native country, Luxembourg, from the University of California, Berkeley in 2010 under the auspices of the Luxembourg National Research Fund’s ATTRACT programme. I am now leading the Eco-Systems Biology group at the LCSB, which investigates the molecular interactions between microbial communities with the human body system and how they are impacting in health and diseases. To this end, we have developed a series of high-resolution measurement techniques that are now being deployed to study various diseases including neurodegenerative disease such as Parkinson’s disease. This allows for example to investigate the fundamental question whether changes to the microbiome of the gut may be the trigger for chronic medical conditions. I am for example investigating this question in my recently awarded European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant project “ExpoBiome”.

Moreover, I am coordinating the Doctoral Research Unit (DTU) on Microbiomes in One Health (MICROH), which brings together group leaders and PhD students from several public and private research and development institutions (University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg Institute of Health, Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology, Laboratoire National de la Santé and Laboratoires Réunis) together with leading international partners (European Molecular Biology Laboratory, University of Kent and University of Strasbourg) to study interactions within and between microbiomes in relation to major healthcare challenges of our time such as the increasing prevalence of microbiome-linked chronic diseases and infections due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The concept of One Health is particularly relevant in the context of the emergence of SARS-CoV-2. First observations suggest that the virus evolved in bats then transferred to pangolins from where it was transmitted to humans. One Health is a concept which recognises that the health of animals and the environment play critical roles for the maintenance of human health. COVID-19 is an example of a rapidly spreading human disease which has emerged due to these interactions. However, there remains a lot to understand, not least in order to prevent the emergence of such pathogens in future. Through training the next-generation of scientists, our MICROH-DTU is thereby laying the groundwork to tackle future outbreaks potentially before they spread to humans. In the context fo the MICROH-DTU and together with our partners, I also run a weekly lecture series in microbiology which involves talks by leading microbiologists from around the world.


2)     How is your expertise relevant in the current COVID context?

PW: Through my different activities at the national level, I am very well connected to the Luxembourg research landscape. I am for example a co-founder and board member of the Luxembourg Society for Microbiology and a full member of the Institut Grand-Ducal, Section des Sciences Naturelles, Physiques et Mathématiques (Luxembourg’s equivalent to a national academy of sciences). Through different initiatives, we have built up a “small but beautiful” research ecosystem in microbiology, including virology, together with all our partners at the different public research institutions as well as the private sector. Through our different studies on the human microbiome, I am also well connected to clinicians with different specializations including in infection biology in Luxembourg, a network which is now helping in gathering clinical samples for examples in close concert with the Laboratoire National de la Santé to address the different research questions being pursued under the COVID-19 Task Force. Finally, as a member of the LCSB executive team, I am very familiar with our in-house capacities and have been able to acquire the necessary managerial skills and insights.

3)     What is your specific role in ongoing COVID projects?

PW: I am the representative of the University of Luxembourg and deputy spokesperson of the Research Luxembourg COVID-19 Task Force. I am in charge of coordinating and directing the activities of four workpackages ranging topic-wise from assessing the socio-economic impact of the crisis to developing different exit scenarii. A major emphasis lies on communication and coordination between researchers working on different projects, to foster synergies and avoid redundancy of work. As spokesperson, I need to ensure the liaison with the several Ministries, hospitals, research institutions and other stakeholders in Luxembourg.

Together with clinicians on the frontline, my group and I have also launched a study focused on the importance of co-infections in the context of COVID-19 disease which is essential to predict the course of the disease and most importantly to develop new treatment modalities. In addition, I am involved, together with the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology, in a study that analyses wastewater samples to detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2.


4)     Can you tell us a bit more about your collaborators in the Task Force?

PW: At the moment, the Task Force is comprised of six members from the different Luxembourg public research institutions under the leadership of the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH). We are in vivid contact with one another and have daily meetings to check up on and align on the activities in the different workpackages. The most important aspect concerns proper coordination to ensure that there is no redundancy between the different workpackages and to identify transversal topics and projects on which the workpackage leaders have to align. To ensure a smooth operation, we have designed and implemented an efficient communication strategy. So far, it has been an absolute privilege to be part of this highly motivated and hard-working group of people which hopefully will make a difference in us understanding and tackling this new disease.


Picture: © Science relations