© HIRI, Sandy Westermann (SCIGRAPHIX)

1.5 million euros for the development of new antiviral agents

HIRI researchers receive funding from the German Federal Agency SPRIND

Würzburg, October 26, 2022 – A research alliance led by the University Medical Center Göttingen including scientists from the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research (HIRI) excelled in the first stage of the antivirals challenge of the Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovations (SPRIND). During the second stage of the competition, the team will receive 1.5 million euros for the continued development of novel antiviral agents. The funding period lasts twelve months.

Viruses are a somewhat unpredictable threat to global health, the economy, and society—this has become apparent during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. With the challenge “A quantum shift for new antiviral agents”, the Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovations (SPRIND) supports the development of novel antivirals. In this 3-year contest, teams compete to find the most promising active agents against viral infections. A jury of scientists and entrepreneurs has now selected six candidates from the initial nine teams to participate in the second stage. Among them is the research network “CRISPR antivirals”, which is coordinated by Elisabeth Zeisberg, University Medical Center Göttingen, and includes HIRI department head Chase Beisel. Other scientists from Lower Saxony are also involved in the network.

Combating viruses with genetic scissors

Their joint goal is to use CRISPR-Cas gene scissors in the fight against viruses. Through specific Cas-mediated cleavage of the viral genome, the team aims to block virus proliferation. While the colleagues from Lower Saxony are concentrating on the Cas13 nuclease, Chase Beisel is focusing on alternative CRISPR nucleases at the HIRI, a site of the Braunschweig Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in cooperation with the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU).

There is one key advantage of this approach compared to more traditional technologies: these CRISPR-based therapeutics could potentially be developed more quickly and also be adapted more easily—for example, to be used against mutations or other viruses. ”Up to now, antiviral agents are often specific to just one virus. This research project helps us better understand bacterial immune systems and their defense mechanisms against viruses. We want to leverage this knowledge to create a new class of antiviral agents for human infectious diseases,” explains Chase Beisel.

The competition

The three-stage competition is based on an evaluation of all participating teams every twelve months. If the jury is convinced of the results, fresh funding can be awarded for the next stage. The total competition period covers three years. For applicants that successfully pass all three stages, additional funding may be available for clinical trials.

A total of 45 applications from Germany and abroad were submitted to SPRIND. In the first stage, nine teams were selected to carry out their breakthrough research. Six of them have now reached the second stage. Up to four teams will then be selected for the third and final stage of the competition, each of which will receive a further two million euros to develop their drug candidates towards the clinic.


The Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation (SPRIND) is a subsidiary of the German government and was founded in December 2019. Its mission is to identify, develop and finance groundbreaking innovations. Its innovation competitions, so-called SPRIND Challenges, aim to result in solutions for the major societal and technological challenges of our time.