Be creative and inventive: Queensland scientist is on quest for vaccine

Queensland is a world leader in seeking ways to fight COVID-19, with projects underway at a number of institutions.

Griffith University researchers led by Professor Bernd Rehm have developed several candidate vaccines against COVID-19, and commenced animal trials of vaccine candidates in April.

The Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD) has partnered in the quest with Luina Bio Pty Ltd, a Brisbane-based biopharmaceuticals contract manufacturer.

GRIDD scientists will combine Luina Bio’s contract manufacture capabilities with the university’s rapid-response technology, a proven platform that allows for low-cost, large-scale manufacturing of pilot vaccines for preclinical and clinical testing within a few months.

Based at the University’s Nathan campus in Brisbane, Professor Rehm is Director of the Centre for Cell Factories and Biopolymers which he established at GRIDD.

He is author and co-author of more than 200 scientific publications, and an inventor or co-inventor on 59 patent applications, 26 of which have been granted patents.

We spoke with Professor Rehm about how the quest for a vaccine was going, what inspired him to become a scientist, and what drove him to work on a COVID-19 vaccine.

Professor Bernd Rehm. Image courtesy of Griffith University.

How is GRIDD’s COVID-19 vaccine work progressing?

All our vaccine research is based on the principle of using a platform. We are using microbial cell factories to make a COVID-19 vaccine candidate that we’ll take into industrial manufacturing using standard microbial fermentation, our preferred method.

Using this method, a medical vaccine is synthesised and assembled by engineered microbial cells. We grow the cells, and harvest material from them, ready to use in animal trials including toxicology tests.

On 20 April we started testing candidate vaccines on mice and if successful, would then scale up to larger animals, then to humans.

The team will look to transfer the manufacturing process to an industrial manufacturing facility such as provided by Luina Bio. This would then allow production of a clinical-grade vaccine for testing in humans.

Please give us some examples of other vaccines that GRIDD has worked on.

We’ve worked on diseases such as meningitis, pneumonia, tuberculosis, Hepatitis C and streptococcal diseases. Recently we’ve been looking at deadly viruses such as Ebola, in collaboration with CSIRO.

GRIDD collaborates with other institutions around the world such as the Harvard Medical University, Johns Hopkins University, and Australia’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research.

Why do you do what you do?

I was always fascinated with the complexity of biological systems and how nature could synthesise materials and structures, such as growing teeth, or soft tissues like a heart or spider webs.

The more we investigate underlying molecular concepts, natural polymers and inorganic structures, the more we can engineer. The whole field of using biology and biological principles in manufacturing is very exciting. There is a lot of scope for high performance medical materials.

Who has inspired you? Is there someone you look up to ­– a past teacher or colleague, for example?

If you have a good childhood, it’s a good foundation for your life. I grew up in a remote, rural village in Germany, in the middle of the woods, far from big towns. It was a great childhood with a lot of freedom.

I’ve taken inspiration from multiple people. Back in high school, my biology teacher noticed my interest in molecular biology and encouraged me to go into that field.

Early in my career I was lucky to be close to immunologists, biochemists, Nobel laureates — this was inspirational for a young scientist. These people had reached milestones, yet they were normal people. They had creative, prolific minds, and were using their knowledge while thinking beyond boundaries.

They show that science and research are very creative fields. You have to be inventive and observant.

Take us back to when your team at GRIDD started working on this vaccine, and how it differs from the work of your cross-town colleagues at The University of Queensland.

My team is three staff — lead researcher Dr Shuxiong Chen supported by two PhD students, from the Cell Factories and Biopolymers Centre in GRIDD. We pivoted to COVID-19 and reduced or stopped research on other vaccines.

All our vaccine research is based on the principle of using a platform. It’s different from UQ’s molecular clamp technology. Our method is based on what’s called microbial fermentation.

We had the technology in-house and I felt strongly it was my responsibility to work on a COVID-19 vaccine as well [as the University of Queensland]. At the end of February I bid for seed funding from Griffith University, which we got. By the beginning of April we had five vaccine candidates.

Do you think about the impact your work might have?

Yes, we have a chance to provide a solution to a crisis that’s impacting on society and economies. That’s a huge motivation. I tell the team that if they contribute to a vaccine it will be a massive accolade for them — and career-changing.

You’re all working round the clock on this project. How will you celebrate if you are successful in developing and producing a COVID-19 vaccine?

I’d get the whole team together — by that I mean all the alumni; everyone who contributed, even if they were small contributions that laid the foundation; and the funding bodies — ­ to celebrate. Hopefully we’ll be at a stage where social distancing won’t impact on the celebration.

What encouragement would you give to anyone considering a career in your field?

Science and technology are key disciplines for understanding global problems. The great hope is that they can provide solutions to issues of health, the environment, climate change, energy, food and the economy. What we learn from science can be applied to unmet needs, to help society and the environment, and give us a better quality of life.

Visit Advance Queensland to learn more about how we are supporting Queensland through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last updated 08 May, 2020
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