The Friedrich Loeffler Institute (FLI) on the island of Riems in the Greifswalder Bodden offers a workplace in a beautiful landscape, but also demands a lot from researchers. “In this context, nothing goes fast”, explains Thomas Mettenleiter, the president of the institute.
It also means going to the toilet. It takes half an hour before you can get out of your previously sprayed protective suit in a disinfectant shower.
The Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut conducts research on contagious animal diseases and viruses, on the transmission routes between humans and animals and vice versa.
“We modify pathogens to determine their properties,” explains Mettenleiter, “but also their Achilles heels. This means: where you can then intervene accordingly, whether with vaccines or antiviral drugs.”
Riems is therefore often referred to as “the most dangerous island in Germany” or “Alcatraz of research” (in allusion to the prison island off the coast of San Francisco). The island has security level four, the highest on record. Individuals only have access with authorization.
Nevertheless, “the most dangerous island in Germany” does not really fit, says the Mettenleiter. The virologist has been leading the institute since 1996. A virus has not escaped during this time.
Of course, 100% security does not exist. In the past, “before these high-tech conditions existed,” there were incidents. Most recently in 1982 when the Foot and Mouth disease pathogen escaped.
The location of the island is no coincidence
The FLI is one of the oldest virological research institutes. It was founded in 1910 and is named after bacteriologist Friedrich Loeffler. The “virus discoverer and founder of virus research”, emphasizes Thomas Mettenleiter. The island location of the institute was not chosen by chance.
At the beginning of the 20th century, “the technological possibilities did not yet exist to retain such tiny pathogens. The foot-and-mouth disease virus experiments repeatedly caused epidemics in the Greifswald region. Loeffler was then asked in 1907 to stop his experiments. Unless he finds a safe place to do it.”
The institute therefore came to the island of Riems, which today belongs to the federal government.
“Continued to rely on experimental animals”
Animal experiments are still carried out here on mice, hamsters and ferrets. Even though the number has been drastically reduced, there must still be laboratory animals, according to the FLI president.
“Nowadays you can do a lot of things outside of the host animal. There are cell cultures, there are organ systems. But if I want to understand the complex interplay between the pathogen and the host, for example with regard to the development of vaccines, then we continue to depend on the laboratory animal.
“A Heart for Viruses”
Thomas Mettenleiter began his scientific career with work on a porcine virus. Since then, he has been offered figurines of stuffed pigs, in wood or plastic, the collection of which now adorns his office.
At 15, Mettenleiter already knew he wanted to become a virologist. “It’s my dream job.” This enthusiasm can still be heard in the almost 65-year-old, for example when he talks about the flu virus.
“These are very changeable pathogens that manage with very low genetic potential and yet still cause major problems for us. They also pose challenges for us virologists. We are seeing something similar with Sars-CoV- 2. The pathogen was found to be highly variable in some biological properties. We are a little surprised.”
Mettenleiter would not contradict the fact that he admires viruses.
“Sometimes I say something offhand: ‘A heart for viruses’. Viruses don’t just fascinate me because they also make us sick. Viruses have the greatest genetic diversity. Without viruses, we wouldn’t exist.