Imperial’s work to develop smarter, more effective and flexible vaccines was showcased to a global audience from government, industry and charities.
Scores of diplomats and policymakers, including science attachés from Germany, France and China, heard talks from leading vaccines experts at the latest Imperial Global Science Policy Forum event.
Vaccines are one of the great success stories of modern medicine, having eradicated or controlled many severe infections of major global importance, improving the lives of millions across the world. Despite this, numerous infections cannot yet be prevented, and major hurdles remain to developing effective vaccines against these conditions.
Enormity and diversity of the problem
The fifth Imperial Global Science Policy Forum event introduced the vaccines landscape in the UK, highlighting how the government and leading universities are responding to global challenges through vaccine research and development.
Although vaccines have been a success story, and global health is improving, it’s not solved and there is still much work to do in this space. Professor Robin Shattock Head of Mucosal Infection and Immunity, Department of Medicine
The audience had the opportunity to hear from Professors Robin Shattock, Wendy Barclay and Jason Hallett, key researchers in the field of vaccines, as well as the chance to learn more about the Imperial Network for Vaccine Research, which supports vaccine research, development and production.
Danny Altmann, Professor of Immunology in the Department of Medicine, opened the event by highlighting the “enormity and diversity of the challenge of vaccine research and vaccine development,” and the need for a multidisciplinary approach.
Future Vaccine Manufacturing Research Hub
Professor Robin Shattock, Head of Mucosal Infection and Immunity in the Department of Medicine, introduced the Future Vaccine Manufacturing Research Hub, which brings together a huge range of different disciplines to both develop vaccines and take them into early-human clinical testing. Through strategic partnership with researchers, national centres and industry, the Hub aims to revolutionise future vaccine manufacture, especially in developing countries.
Professor Shattock explained how alongside clean water and sanitation, vaccines are one of the most effective public health measures, so far preventing over 3 billion disease cases. He also explored “vaccine hesitancy”: where people no longer experience outbreaks like measles, public attention can shift to supposed side-effects rather than the diseases being prevented.
He said: “Although vaccines have been a success story, and global health is improving, it’s not solved and there is still much work to do in this space.”
Building a vaccine revolution
Professor Shattock also discussed his work on the manufacturing of RNA vaccines to create quicker and more accessible responses to outbreaks of known pathogens, such as a flu, and unknown pathogens, called Disease X. Most countries, he said, do not have the infrastructure that could respond quickly enough to have an impact in such a situation.
His team is working on synthetic RNA vaccines, which harness the body’s own cell machinery to make an antigen (a foreign substance that induces an immune response) rather than injecting the antigen directly. This technology is viable and allows regions and cities to manufacture their own vaccines – these are “globally approved but locally made.”
For every month’s delay of a vaccine in the case of a pandemic respiratory virus, scientists anticipate 5 million deaths. It is developing countries that would see 80% of the fatalities, yet they are least prepared. He added: “If we don’t want to wait in line for a vaccine, we need to move away from a single-source manufacturing approach, to having a distributing network, in order to ensure that different parts of the world could respond quickly enough.”
Jason Hallett, Professor of Sustainable Chemical Technology in the Department of Chemical Engineering, works on thermal stabilisation of vaccines, allowing them to exist in room temperature without destroying their efficacy.
Most medicines, including vaccines, are made in central locations and then shipped around the world – to do this, vaccines have to be kept cold in order to keep them stable. Keeping vaccines cold is responsible for up to 80% of the cost of vaccinating a person.
Professor Hallett has designed salts that could act like water and protect the structure of the vaccine, even when hot. This would make vaccines more affordable and more accessible, so they could be shipped anywhere in the world, stored on shelves indefinitely and wouldn’t have to be kept only in large hospitals.
Stopping a pandemic at source
Professor Wendy Barclay, Action Medical Research Chair in Virology in the Department of Medicine, works to determine whether it is possible to stop a pandemic from emerging in the first place.
The source of all influenza is in wild birds (ducks and geese), and this avian virus can jump into farmed animals (pigs and chickens). This is a stepping stone for the virus to jump into humans, and people exposed to infected chickens can catch potentially fatal bird flu.
Professor Barclay and her team hope to stop the virus from being able to replicate in the farmed animals, which would prevent the next influenza pandemic at source. She said: “What we’re envisaging here is a barrier or a buffer between the wild birds and humans. That would be farmed animals that can’t be infected at all by wild influenza viruses.”
Professor Barclay works with the Roslin Institute, using CRISPR gene-editing technology to engineer the genomes of farm animals to make them resistant to influenza.
Vice President Maggie Dallman welcomed the guests and speakers to Imperial, emphasising the Forum as being a “really good platform for connecting and convening our international and external partners, to focus on some of the world’s most important challenges.”
The Imperial Global Science Policy Forum (IGSPF) is a high-profile programme of events designed to connect senior international science, education and innovation advisers to Imperial researchers, industry experts and other relevant stakeholders including parts of UK government.
The programme of events focuses on some of the most important global challenges, from smart cities and future health, to artificial intelligence, and showcases Imperial’s creative, international and multidisciplinary scientific research and technological innovation.
Image credits: Thomas Angus
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Communications and Public Affairs
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