Dr. Stefanie Eyerich

Communication Factors under Surveillance

Unusual ideas are welcome in Stefanie Eyerich’s team. “They are inspiring and lead to new approaches,” says the leader of the junior research group “T Cell Biology in Health and Disease” at the Institute of Allergy Research of Helmholtz Zentrum München. Stefanie Eyerich also pursues new approaches to help patients suffering from atopic eczema and psoriasis. She is exploring the role that various T cells play for the barrier function of the skin and is searching for new drug targets. 

Stefanie Eyerich wants to elucidate the immunological causes of inflammatory skin diseases such as atopic eczema and psoriasis. Her junior research group is focusing on the cytokines of specific T cells, which react with skin cells (the image shows a keratinocyte) and which trigger inflammatory reactions. Source: HMGU

Every day in her practical work, it is clear to Stefanie Eyerich how important it is to develop new therapy options for inflammatory diseases of the skin. “The patients have a very high level of suffering. My goal is to improve their quality of life,” explains the immunologist. Atopic eczema and psoriasis are among the most common diseases of the skin. In Germany around four million people are affected by atopic eczema, most of them children; an additional three million people have psoriasis. An imbalance in the immune system underlies both diseases and leads to the appearance of the symptoms.

T cells, which actually fulfill protective functions in the immune system, play an important role in the disease process. T cells, also called T lymphocytes, initiate an immune response in the body as soon as they come into contact with substances that they recognize as foreign. Certain T lymphocytes remember such a specific immune response and when they encounter the same foreign substance at a later time, they trigger a rapid and effective immune response. If the immune system, however, gets out of balance, it classifies the body’s own structures or harmless structures from the environment as dangerous. This leads to an increased release of cytokines, which then trigger allergic and inflammatory reactions.

Together with her team, Stefanie Eyerich analyzes which specific T cells trigger this reaction. The main focus is on the communication factors of the T cells, the cytokines. These interact with epithelial cells in the tissue and instruct them to initiate an inflammatory reaction. The team wants to understand which communication factors are produced so that they can be deactivated with the aid of antibodies. Then, in this case, the command to trigger an inflammatory reaction would not be given. The onset of the disease could be prevented, and the patients could be helped effectively.

“For me it was always important to do research that is medically relevant,” the biologist stresses. The Institute of Allergy Research provides an ideal environment for this: Two colleagues in Eyerich‘s team work as doctors in the Clinic for Dermatology and Allergology of Technische Universität München and at the same time conduct research in the laboratory. “We can analyze T cells directly from patient samples and include observations from practice in our research,” says the scientist.

Already during her time as postdoc at Imperial College in London, Eyerich’s primary research interest was immunology and allergy. One of the most valuable experiences she gained from her work there in the large laboratory was “the ‘intensively lived’ interdisciplinary communication“. She found these communication structures again at Helmholtz Zentrum München – another reason “why research here is fun“. From her staff members she also expects “that they are motivated and enjoy doing their tasks“. Stefanie Eyerich herself finds it especially motivating to pass on her knowledge to young team members, in order to develop projects together to lead to success.