From Würzburg into the world


Christine Lehman studied biology at the University of Würzburg. Today, she is in Hamburg researching the complex life cycle of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria.

Christine Lehmann at her workplace in the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine. (Photo: private)
Christine Lehmann at her workplace in the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine. (Photo: private)

Which jobs do graduates from the University of Würzburg work in? To present different perspectives to students, Michaela Thiel, the director of the central alumni network, interviews selected alumni. This time, it is Christine Lehmann's turn.

Alumna Christine Lehmann grew up in Hamburg. After graduating from school, she went to study biology at the University of Würzburg. To get fresh stimulus and collect first experiences in lab work, she spent a year at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin and at Duke University in North Carolina. She returned to Hamburg for her doctoral thesis and worked at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine where she also hosted a regional group meeting of alumni in North Germany in mid-June.

After earning her doctorate on the subject of the development of the Plasmodium malaria parasite and involved proteases during the parasite's liver stage development, she has worked as a postdoc in Geneva and London for the past six years. Christine has a little daughter.

Ms Lehmann, how did studying prepare you for your working life? The knowledge I acquired about the theoretical foundations and biological contexts in cell biology, genetics and microbiology is still relevant and useful to me every day. The various laboratory internships in Germany and abroad, which were facilitated by contacts of the University of Würzburg with partner universities and institutes, were also immensely helpful. They opened the door for my diploma thesis and for my doctoral thesis later on.

What is your research focus? Since my diploma thesis, I have been working on the interactions between the Plasmodium parasite that cause malaria and its host cells. The parasites are transmitted by female Anopheles mosquitoes that occur in tropical regions and have a highly complex life cycle.

What do you mean by a highly complex life cycle? In infected humans, the parasites first migrate from the place of infection in the skin into the blood stream and on to the liver where they grow and multiply. From there, the morphologically adapted parasites return to the blood where they infect more red blood cells every 48 hours. As a result, huge amounts of blood cells are destroyed and the infected red blood cells clot in the blood vessels of the organs and the brain. Untreated Malaria tropica is therefore lethal in more than 50 percent of cases. Moreover, resistance to nearly all available antimalarial drugs occurs worldwide.

How serious must malaria be taken? Malaria is one of the most lethal tropical diseases still today. In areas where the disease is widespread, children under the age of five are at a special risk. This is why malaria research concentrates on discovering new targets for therapy or developing a vaccine.

And what are you working on? For years, I have been dealing with the question of which enzymes allow the parasite to leave red blood cells and infect new ones? We hope that this will help us identify new targets for treating malaria.

What is your everyday work like? As the basis of all experiments the parasites, which are kept in blood cultures in the laboratory at 37 degrees Celsius, have to be fed and nursed almost daily. Given the 48 hour cycle described above, the parasites need to be supplied with fresh blood cells every two days. Most experiments study a specific development stage of the parasite in its cycle. In my case, I have to watch for the exact transition from one cycle to the next to be able to track the infection of new red blood cells. I can draw on various methods for my experiments. For example, the parasites can be dyed or modified genetically to produce fluorescent proteins that accumulate in certain cellular structures. The living parasites and their sub-cellular structures can then be visualized under a microscope. I also use various parasite mutants that lack single proteins to find out whether and how these proteins are crucial for the infection of blood cells.

Are there trends and highlights in tropical diseases too? Malaria research has received a lot of attention in the past years. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, declared eliminating malaria one of their top priorities at the end of 2013. So far, they have provided more than two billion US dollars’ worth of funding for this purpose. But also other parasites and viruses that can cause severe diseases come into focus once a lot of people are affected, for instance, during an epidemic. Most will remember the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa which killed more than 11,000 people within a few months. In recent times, the Zika virus has attracted a lot of attention which has spread around the globe in the meantime and can cause brain damage in unborn babies when their mothers get infected. 

Which special challenges are you facing in your field of work? One challenge I face on a weekly basis is the parasite's life cycle. If you want to study specific development stages, you have to fully adapt to its cycle. Accordingly, you have to work in the lab at night or on the weekend to be able to run tests. Moreover, the parasite is extremely versatile and highly adaptable. This ability has allowed the pathogen to alternately parasitise between humans and mosquitoes for more than 100,000 years and become resistant to drugs or compensate for genetic manipulations within shortest time.

What is your best memory of your time as a student in Würzburg? In my first week at university, the freshmen were put in small groups and were assigned a mentor who answered all our questions and helped us find our way around the large campus of the University of Würzburg's Biocenter. These first common experiences in our small group have led to a deep friendship that has lasted throughout my university studies to the present day. I also benefited from past exam papers, experiences and enjoyed the parties of the FiBio. Thanks for that!

And finally, how do you manage to achieve a work-life balance? I stayed at home with my daughter for the first year, a time I enjoyed tremendously. After that, we were lucky to get a spot in a day-care centre for her and I could go back to work. But still it is often a logistical challenge, especially in times of illness or during holidays. I have the privilege that the grandparents are very involved and that my husband picks her up from daycare on most days. Without this support it would be difficult for me to continue my research. 

Thank you and kind regards.

If you want to learn more about the alumni network of the University of Würzburg or to register, follow the link below.

By Michaela Thiel / Gunnar Bartsch