You work on vaccines that don’t need to be delivered using large needles, I like the sound of that. What are you developing?
I am working on delivery systems for vaccines that either use microneedles, where you put a patch on your skin and the vaccine gets delivered painlessly that way, or else the vaccine can be taken orally, by mouth.
Are you currently working on vaccine delivery against the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19?
Yes, I have a collaboration with a biotechnology company in San Francisco called Vaxart. Their vaccine is in a tablet that you swallow. We know this induces great mucosal immune responses, such as in the airways.
This is where coronavirus replicates, so you want a strong immune response to the virus there. They have shown that this protects humans against influenza virus infection and are now developing their platform for SARS-CoV-2.
How did you develop an interest in science?
In school I really liked history and science, and particularly chemistry. Science won out and I studied biochemistry in Cork. When I was an undergraduate, I went to a seminar where a researcher from California spoke about having lab barbecues on the beach.
This appealed to me and I decided research might be a good idea. I did a PhD on HIV vaccines in NUI Maynooth, with Dr Kingston Mills, then I worked as a post-doctoral scientist in the US on HIV and Ebola virus vaccines.
Did research live up to your expectations? Was it all barbecues on the beach?
No, in fact I was quite disillusioned at one point, but then I had a conversation that changed everything. I was on a shuttle bus to the NIH [National Institutes of Health] in the US, and I got chatting with a man who was a patient in a clinical trial. He was so emotional about how science was saving his life that it changed my perspective, and I stayed in science.
I went to work at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford and learned a lot about how to translate vaccines to the clinic, one of which is a universal flu vaccine. It's great to see that these colleagues and friends are starting their Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial in the next few weeks.
And now you are in University College Cork – has the pandemic changed how you work?
The rapid closure impacted all researchers, staff and students. UCC is facilitating essential work related to Covid-19, such as contact tracing, chemotherapy clinics and mass-producing testing buffers. We are grateful that we have access to continue vaccine work.
And when might we have those other vaccines with no painful needles?
We have had some nice results with ImmuPatch, our microneedle patch for delivering vaccines, and we are streamlining the manufacturing process now. We know it works well for the vaccine technologies being tested for SARS-CoV-2.
The benefits will not only be that it doesn’t cause pain, it will mean vaccines loaded into the microneedles are stable and won’t need to be chilled in transport or storage, and it can be self-administered, so there are lots of advantages.
We just need to source some more funding to finish that project, and for now Covid work in UCC has become more immediate.
Hopefully in the future, vaccines will be easy to administer, with a patch or a tablet. This simplicity will make immunisation more equitable and increase the number of people protected against disease.