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Investment in vaccinology: building on a proud history

HRH The Princess Royal unveiling a sign to officially open the BBSRC National Vaccinology Centre: The Jenner Building, assisted by Dr Bryan Charleston, Director of The Pirbright Institute. Images courtesy of The Pirbright Institute © 2017

In this guest blog, Dr Bryan Charleston, the new Director of The Pirbright Institute, tells us about their work and the steps The Pirbright Institute is taking to ensure they maintain their reputation as a world leading centre for preventing and controlling viral diseases of livestock.

I was honoured to host HRH the Princess Royal when she visited The Pirbright Institute recently to officially open the new BBSRC National Vaccinology Centre: The Jenner Building. Leading events like this is one of the privileges of being Institute Director and the atmosphere on the day highlighted just how proud colleagues were to showcase our new facilities and innovative science to Princess Anne, and the many other VIP guests who joined us on the day.

The opening of The Jenner Building marks an important milestone in Pirbright’s story and follows the closure of our former site at Compton in Berkshire in 2016, and the consolidation of our science here in Surrey. It reminded me just how far the Institute has developed both in terms of our research and reputation since I joined back in 1994.

Pirbright has a long history of carrying out studies of livestock diseases in high containment.  Indeed, just over two years ago we opened our cutting-edge high containment laboratory, the BBSRC National Virology Centre: The Plowright Building. This was named after Walter Plowright the British veterinarian and former Pirbright scientist, who developed the rinderpest vaccine that made the global eradication of this virus possible. Supported by £350 million of strategic government investment through the BBSRC, the facilities here at Pirbright are being transformed – enabling the delivery of globally important science. 

Pirbright scientist Dr Erica Bickerton, demonstrating
to HRH The Princess Royal the process of egg
candling. Image courtesy of The Pirbright
Institute (C) 2017

The work in The Jenner Building is focussed on understanding host-pathogen interactions.  In addition to meeting the need to find new and effective control methods for livestock diseases, we will continue to contribute in the field of comparative biology.  For example, analysis of the regions of host genomes associated with immune functions is challenging because these highly repetitive and heterogeneous regions can be difficult to define in detail. Pirbright scientists, in collaboration with US colleagues, have developed new methods and analysis protocols to sequence these difficult regions in the goat genome. The methods developed are likely to have broad applicability to other species.

Pirbright also has an important track record in terms of vaccine development. In the early 1960’s Pirbright scientists used suspension cultures of baby hamster kidney cells for the first time to grow foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV) before inactivation and formulation into vaccines. This suspension culture system is still in use today for FMDV vaccines and other antigens including rabies. More recently, our capacity to interrogate pathogens in the natural host has put us at the forefront of the newly emerging field of structural vaccinology. 

My own research programme in collaboration with Professor Dave Stuart at Oxford and Professor Ian Jones at Reading has resulted in the production of a novel empty capsid vaccine for FMDV.  This new vaccine doesn’t require the production of large quantities of live virus and can be physically stabilised by modifying specific residues in the capsid. These capsid vaccines protect cattle from live virus challenge. 

Similarly, working in collaboration with Dr Peter Kwong from the US National Institutes of Health, Pirbright scientists have shown recombinant bovine respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) F protein, locked in its pre-fusion state, confers protection from live virus challenge in cattle.  These two studies are important proof of concept studies for the development of livestock and human vaccines, including human RSV vaccines and human picornavirus vaccines, such as polio and EV71.

Another area of work that will continue to flourish in the new facilities is virus transmission biology and understanding how to block transmission using vaccines.  Despite the great successes, vaccination has the potential to drive pathogen evolution resulting in increased virulence and immune escape.  Our studies in the natural hosts will contribute to our understanding of new ways of driving immune responses that prevent the spread of disease.

Dr Bryan Charleston, Institute Director, The Pirbright Institute