Dr Christopher Chiu
Five minutes with Dr Christopher Chiu, Clinical Senior Lecturer and Lead, Imperial Network for Vaccine Research
1. Tell us about your research in a nutshell
My interest is in how the immune system protects us from common respiratory viruses like the flu and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV). RSV and flu are the main causes of severe lung infections by viruses and RSV is particularly dangerous for babies and the elderly. In addition, both are seasonal diseases, putting huge amounts of pressure on health services during the winter months. To make matters worse, by the time patients arrive at hospitals the infection is often too advanced for antivirals to be effective and frequently there is no specific treatment available at all.
The best way of dealing with flu and RSV infections therefore is prevention by vaccination, in principle."
The best way of dealing with flu and RSV infections therefore is prevention by vaccination, in principle. The problem with this approach is that we still do not understand how to stimulate an immune response using vaccines that offer long lasting protection and are future-proofed against multiple strains of a virus. In this respect my research aims are two-fold. With flu, I am interested in developing a vaccine that protects against multiple strains of the illness so that patients don’t have to return to be vaccinated year on year. With RSV, by contrast, no vaccine exists. Our strategy in tackling RSV is to better understand how the different mechanisms of our immune system might be harnessed to provide protection, particularly focusing on the nose and lung, which is a relatively novel approach.
2. Tell us about some of your projects
My research is mainly carried out through experimental human infection. In these “human challenge studies” we give participants a dose of flu or RSV and see how the illnesses progress. Although everyone is given the same dose of illness, the outcomes can be very different. Some participants are minimally unwell, others suffer moderate cold or flu symptoms, and some get no infection at all – their bodies just completely fight it off. Because the typical responses fall into those three different groups, we can start to look at what aspects of their immune system might be associated with the various kinds of protection.
We are looking at the genes that are being turned on and off in the cells of the nose and the blood to try and predict at an early stage which groups are particularly at risk of severe symptoms. These may then be used to develop novel diagnostic tests or treatment targets."
In RSV we have focused on the nose and lungs and looked at immune responses that might be associated with control of the severity of disease. So far, we have found that antibodies in the nose and T-cells in the lung are very important though there are many discoveries left to be made. Currently we are thinking about how these different mechanisms might be harnessed by particular types of vaccines to enhance these protective systems.
With flu we are looking at ways to predict how and why some people go on to have more severe symptoms than others. In particular, we are looking at the genes that are being turned on and off in the cells of the nose and the blood to try and predict at an early stage which groups are particularly at risk of severe symptoms. These may then be used to develop novel diagnostic tests or treatment targets.3. What impact could your research have for our industry partners?
The human challenge approach is a great way to mitigate the risk of lost investment because the trials are much smaller."
There are two major areas where our research can have an impact for corporates. At the discovery stage, we are seeking to understand what type of immunity is best for providing protection. In the short term this will allow us to advise on particular vaccine strategies. For example, our recent publications have focussed on the advantages of vaccinating directly to the nose rather than by injection. This revelation has changed the attitude of a lot of the industrial partners we have been talking with. Partners who have intramuscular vaccines, for example, are now interested in seeing whether those vaccines can induce the kind of responses in the nose that we’ve shown are particularly effective.
The other area we see synergies is at the early clinical testing stage. The major issue with vaccine development is that it’s increasingly expensive and risky to take a vaccine from concept to clinic. It takes 10-15 years and over $500M to take a vaccine through that process and then there’s still a possibility it will be shown to have minimal effect during clinical trials. The human challenge approach is a great way to mitigate that risk of lost investment because the trials are much smaller. Using this strategy, we can find out relatively quickly at an early stage whether a potential vaccine has any kind of efficacy and help a corporate to decide whether to invest in larger clinical trials or to pursue another line of development.
4. What's interesting you most about your field at the moment?
The dream of developing a universal flu vaccine that can protect against a new pandemic virus has recently become a more attainable goal."
The dream of developing a universal flu vaccine that can protect against a new pandemic virus has recently become a more attainable goal. The US government and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are investing heavily in this area, having realised that the traditional way of producing flu vaccines is not good enough. What we need to do is develop innovative approaches, thinking outside the box and using new technologies. In fact, Imperial has recently embarked on a new initiative with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness to test such rapid response methods. It’s exciting that there is funding like this being dedicated to riskier but potentially transformative technologies and methods.
Equally as exciting is that there are approximately 19 candidates in early clinical development or later to become the first RSV vaccine. This means there is a strong possibility of one coming to market within the next 5 years or so. This initial version of the vaccine will not be without its problems though. As I said, RSV primarily affects young children and the elderly so it will not necessarily be possible to give both groups the same vaccine and expect it to work with equal effectiveness. Finding strategies to effectively target both groups will be a great challenge to tackle.5. Who/what sectors would be interested in hearing more about your research?
Anyone with a direct interest in flu and RSV vaccines or therapeutics but particularly:
- Flu and RSV vaccine manufacturers
- Pharmaceutical companies interested in airway diseases
- Biotech companies involved in respiratory virus vaccines
6. You are leader of the Imperial Network for Vaccines Research. What are your hopes and plans for it?
My hope would be that the network achieves increased collaboration, speeds up the development and availability of vaccines and effectively trains a younger generation of early-career researchers.
Through the Centre we hope to develop relationships with other academic institutions and increase our capacity for a smoother, more robust pipeline of collaboration with industry partners."
What we perceived prior to the network’s establishment was that the major barriers to the development and deployment of vaccines are big, multi-factorial and multi-faceted problems. To have individual researchers working on things is great but there are some problems that are not possible to address as an individual. Luckily, by setting up the network we have identified that Imperial has a strong body of researchers working at every stage of the vaccine development pipeline. That pipeline goes all the way from understanding the pathogen to understanding how to manufacture a vaccine cheaply, roll it out effectively and reassure the public that vaccines are a positive thing.
In addition to internal collaboration I am very keen to encourage external collaboration. At the moment we are collaborating with Oxford University and the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on a vaccine development centre named the Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Centre. Through the centre we hope to develop relationships with other academic institutions and increase our capacity for a smoother, more robust pipeline of collaboration with industry partners.
Learn more about Imperial’s Vaccines Research Network