Vaccines and Synthetic Biology Meeting

The Society for Applied Microbiology held their Vaccines and Synthetic Biology meeting at The Royal Society, London.  As scientists experience increasing pressure in an era of post-truth and ‘alternative facts’, the function of such establishments cannot be overestimated.

The Royal Society fulfils a range of cheering roles; promoting science and its benefits, recognising excellence in science, providing scientific advice for policy, fostering international and global cooperation, education and public engagement.

Seeking truth

The society’s motto, Nullius in verba, is Latin for ‘Take nobody’s word for it’. It was adopted to signify a passion for verifying facts via experiments. Founded in 1660, the Society emerged against a backdrop of religious and political strife.

It’s a curious kick in the teeth to progress that ideological strife continues to rage and the pursuit of truth seems more urgent and necessary than ever before.

Launching our event was Brian Greenwood from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. His talk- ‘Why we need a malaria vaccine’ started with an overview of the recent history in the fight against malaria and expanded into the challenges of developing a vaccine.

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Malaria area

Despite considerable progress in the control of malaria, it still causes nearly half a million deaths a year- and most of those are children. The headway achieved via large scale interventions such as insecticide-treated nets and rapid diagnostic tests has been threatened by resistance to artemisinin in South East Asia and pyrethroid insecticides in Africa.

The RTS,S/AS01 vaccine shows promise, according to Greenwood, as it’s provided about 50% protection against malaria during the first year after administration. Unfortunately, this efficacy waned during subsequent years.

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High risk

Despite the caveats, it’s the most advanced malaria vaccine in development and is directed at stopping people getting the infection. Greenwood pointed out that If 1,000 children were vaccinated in a low-risk area of the Gambia, this would only prevent about 20 cases.

If the same action was taken in a high-risk area, 2,000 cases could be prevented. “That may help in guiding where it would be sensible to use this,” he said.

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Sound the alarm

Simon Wain-Hobson was next to take the podium. Had there been cobwebs in the room, he’d have blown them away with a searing and provocative talk on the potential risks of synthetic biology. Wain-Hobson’s ire has been raised by gain-of-function (GOF) research involving the H5N1 flu virus.

Mutant virus

Wain-Hobson pointed out that GOF research was previously known as ‘Dual use research of concern’ (DURC). He referred to the re-naming of the practice as a ‘semantic sleight of hand designed to deceive’- as the updated title rendered it less negative and unlikely to be used as a pejorative.

Under circumstances which Wain-Hobson was referring to, GOF research is ostensibly undertaken to identify combinations of mutations that might allow an animal virus to jump to humans. By knowing the mutations, the thinking goes, researchers can better prepare our scientific defences against a potential threat.

Gain-of-function studies have already shown that bird flu can be modified to become transmissible between ferrets, which often stand in for humans in influenza studies. In one study, bird flu was passed from ferret to ferret until it gained the capacity to spread through the air.

Another study showed that the combination of parts of the 2009 H1N1 ‘swine flu’ virus with bird flu creates a strain of bird flu that is transmissible in ferrets.

Wain-Hobson urged learned societies and ‘intrinsically optimistic’ scientists to come off the fence and speak out when faced with ethically troubling experiments.

Fear of the future

John McCarthy from the University of Warwick addressed synthetic biology, but in a wider context and sounded a less bracing alarm than Wain-Hobson. McCarthy asked if synthetic biology might be used by terrorists to create bioweapons. The answer is, yes, they could, but it prompts another question: why would they bother?

From McCarthy’s perspective, the costs, expertise and time required to create a pathogen using synthetic biology are too restrictive for rogue operators. If terrorists wished to dabble in bioweapons, the chances are, they’d work with pathogens that already exist.

Techno warning

However, McCarthy added, with a note of caution, ‘If automation begins to be realised, then it’s an entirely different ballgame’.

Synthetic biology doesn’t yet benefit from push button technology, but it’s inevitable. Advances in technology over the past 15 years mean that the time required to sequence the human genome has decreased from 13 years to one day.

‘Automation of DNA synthesis is just a fact,’ said McCarthy. ‘This means a change in the balance between machinery and human intervention.’

Whisky magic

Louise Horsfall of the University of Edinburgh discussed using synthetic biology to engineer bacteria which extract dissolved copper from excess waste left over from distilling whisky. Whilst her laboratory are finessing this process, she discussed a wider project where they’re researching use of phytoremediation to remove toxic metal ions from polluted soil.

On a side note, Horsfall also informed us that use of bluestone (copper sulphate) as an algaecide and parasite treatment interferes with the sense of smell in fish, thus preventing salmon from choosing good mates or finding their way to mating areas.

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Vaccines work

It’s alarming to witness anti-vaccine activists emboldened by Donald Trump’s ascent to power. In such unsettling times, it was solace to hear evidence-based sense and experience from Kirsty Mehring Le-Doare. She explained how maternal has the greatest potential of any intervention to reduce the burden of neonatal deaths globally.

The Zika landscape

We know that Zika virus (ZIKV) is largely spread by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and that for most people, it’s a mild infection and isn’t hugely harmful. It’s a different scenario for pregnant women, as there’s some evidence it causes birth defects – in particular microcephaly.

Lance Turtle, of the Institute of Infection and Global Health, University of Liverpool gave a fascinating and informative overview of the shifting ZIKV landscape. Turtle’s field of expertise is the cellular immunology of Flavivirus infection, in particular Japanese encephalitis. ZIKV is a member of the genus Flavivirus, so is related to dengue virus, yellow fever virus, West Nile virus and tick borne encephalitis virus.

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Turtle highlighted the different outcomes of infection in Brazil compared to cases from the Pacific Islands, South-East Asia, and Africa. Although the focus has been on the potential link with microcephaly, ZIKV has also been implicated in other neurological complications such as Guillain-Barre syndrome.

He also emphasised the need to understand the challenges of developing a vaccine due to the cross-reactivity between flaviviruses, in particular dengue.

Denver Russell

When Alan Denver Russell died in 2004, the world of applied microbiology lost one of its most prominent pharmaceutical microbiologists. During his career, some 45 of his research students obtained PhDs, he produced over 450 publications on microbial inactivation and he was the author or editor of 16 books. His contribution to microbiology and his enthusiastic support of SfAM are why his memory is honoured annually.

Polio-the endgame

This year’s Denver Russell Memorial Lecture was given by Phil Minor on the topic, ‘Polio eradication- the endgame’. His talk opened with a hot travel tip- if you’re in the area, visit the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.

The collection of artefacts was donated by Carl Jacobson (1842-1914), son of the founder of the Carlsberg Breweries. Minor highlighted an artwork within this museum, from 1400BC which features perhaps the first artistic representation of a person with from polio.

Minor gave a cracking history of the fight against polio and tackled the last remaining challenges which are to finish eradication, stop vaccinating or change the way it’s done to prevent re-emergence.

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At the end of his entertaining and informative lecture, Phillip Minor was presented with a commemorative framed photo from SfAM President Christine Dodd.

Stewart Cumiskey



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