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The Network effect: promoting collaborative research

In this article from the November issue of Immunology News, Martin Broadstock from the Medical Research Council discusses the rationale behind their new Vaccine Networks, what they hope to achieve through this new initiative and how you can get involved. 

Girl receiving oral polio vaccine
Young girl receives a polio vaccine

Vaccines are some of the most successful medical interventions ever developed. Current childhood vaccines are estimated to prevent 2-3 million deaths per year worldwide and save governments over £50 billion annually. Indeed, vaccine use has eradicated smallpox, and we are tantalisingly close to wiping out polio. Yet these remarkable agents have a complicated and convoluted development process; in fact, current vaccine development and manufacturing are some of the most complicated tasks in biopharmaceuticals. With these roadblocks in place, the creation and production of vaccines can be kept at a standstill.

Outbreak disease potential

The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa claimed over 11,000 lives and highlights the requirement for ongoing vaccine research and development. Part of the tragedy surrounding this epidemic was that while various Ebola vaccine candidates had previously been developed, no single vaccine was sufficiently developed to enable its rapid use in the affected countries. Emerging infectious diseases such as Ebola and Zika know no national boundaries and represent a significant and growing threat to the health and prosperity of all nations. In response to these threats, in 2015 the UK Government Department of Health together with the MRC and BBSRC launched the UK Vaccine Network.


The UK Vaccine Network

This Network brings together experts from industry, academia, philanthropy and government to make targeted investments in world-leading vaccine candidates and vaccine technology to combat diseases with epidemic potential. The Network supports vaccine research and development against some of the world’s deadliest outbreak diseases including Ebola, Lassa, Marburg and Crimean-Congo Fever. So far, the Network has awarded over £62 million in projects across the UK including early work on vaccines against Zika, Ebola and Plague.


A complicated pathway

In comparison with the traditional drug discovery process, vaccine manufacturers have additional hurdles to jump. Partly this is due to their widespread use, as large groups of the population tend to receive vaccines, rather than drugs which are used to treat specific diseases. Understandably, there is a low tolerance from the public to any vaccine side-effects, yet drug side-effects tend to be more common, more tolerated and less reported. Added to this public pressure, there are fewer companies making vaccines – meaning any problems in manufacturing can lead to increasing problems with matching supply and demand. Vaccine-makers also face high production costs, low market prices and heavy regulation.

The UKVN is an opportunity for the MRC to build upon our existing efforts to deliver benefits to global communities. In a time of an unprecedented number of emerging infections, the UKVN together with the MRC/BBSRC Networks in Vaccine R&D will allow us to work more closely with academia, industry and LMIC partners to accelerate our response to new and deadly infections." 

Dr Jonathan Pearce, Head of Infections and Immunity at the MRC

A vaccine development toolkit

In addition to targeting key pathogens, the UK Vaccine Network has developed a process map to help speed up future vaccine developments. This interactive map is intended to support researchers to understand key stages in vaccine development and where bottlenecks could potentially delay progress. Through use of this map, it is hoped that researchers can identify any potential delays well in advance and make plans to overcome them. This should help expedite and streamline vital vaccine development, ultimately enabling more lives to be saved.

Pre-clinical discovery map from the Vaccine Development Process Map


Immunology in vaccinology – the Network effect

In addition to the ongoing work of the UK Vaccine Network, as some of the major funders of vaccine research and development (R&D) in the UK, the MRC and BBSRC recently announced a call for ‘Networks in Vaccine R&D’; (see Immunology News , November 2016). The aims of these sustainable Networks are to address the early stages of the vaccine pipeline and support the research communities to do the most innovative and collaborative research to address key bottlenecks in preclinical discovery R&D. This call forms part of the MRC and BBSRC’s activities under the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and therefore requires Networks to address vaccine R&D challenges primarily relevant to the health or prosperity of Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development list.

As a result of this call, five Networks were awarded at a total of £9.4 million. These Networks encompass a wide range of topics in vaccinology: intracellular pathogens, veterinary vaccinology, human challenge models, pregnant women and neonatal immunisation and bacterial vaccinology. Each Network has been provided with support for a dedicated Network manager and funding for workshops and training activities for Network members. In addition, each Network has funding to support for small scale pump-priming grants; to help Network members obtain preliminary data to support larger applications to funders and to enable new collaborations to be seeded. Each Network is open to new members to join with further details available on their websites.


MRC/BBSRC GCRF Networks in Vaccine R&D Each of the five Networks are focussed on addressing key areas in vaccine research:

The VALIDATE Network based at the University of Oxford aims to promote vaccine R&D for complex intracellular pathogens that cause significant disease burden in LMICs. The initial focus is on Mycobacterium tuberculosis (which causes TB), Leishmania species (leishmaniasis), Burkholderia pseudomallei (melioidosis) and Mycobacterium leprae (leprosy). The Network is creating an engaged and interactive community of researchers who are forming new cross-pathogen, cross-continent, cross-species and cross-discipline collaborations, generating new ideas, taking advantage of synergies and quickly disseminating lessons learned across the Network, with the aim of together making significant progress towards vaccines against the focus pathogens. Key interests are in vivo research, cross-pathogen studies, projects promoting the One Health agenda, and collaborative projects involving LMICs and early career researchers.

The International Veterinary Vaccinology Network based at the Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh aims to establish a Network of UK and LMIC-based researchers that could form collaborations to address the challenges that are impeding vaccine development for major livestock and zoonotic diseases affecting agriculture in LMICs. This includes all species that are of agricultural significance in LMICs including (but not limited to) poultry, aquaculture, ruminants and swine with an emphasis on molecular and cellular biology work relevant to vaccine development. Key aims of the Network are to bring together partners from academia, industry and other sectors.

The Human Challenge Model Network based at Imperial College London aims to support, develop and advocate for human infection challenge studies (HIC) to accelerate the development of vaccines against pathogens of high global impact. This Network will enable open sharing of knowledge and expertise, using Network resources to increase HIC use in the UK and LMICs, disseminating best practice, enhancing training and fostering new collaborative studies relevant to high-impact pathogens.

The Immunisation in Pregnant Women and Neonates based at Imperial College London aims to build a sustainable Network of stakeholders from basic science, immunology, vaccinology, social sciences, industry, public health, national and international policy makers, to increase protection from infection in neonates via the safe and effective use of vaccines in pregnancy and in newborns. The Network will nurture discovery and implementation science in close collaboration with sites and investigators in LMICs, including via an IMPRINT fellowship scheme.

The Bacterial Vaccines (BactiVac) Network based at the University of Birmingham will accelerate the development of vaccines against bacterial infections, particularly those relevant to LMICs. The BactiVac Network will bring together academic, industrial and other partners involved in vaccine research against human and animal bacterial infections from the UK and LMICs. The Network will foster partnership and provide catalyst project and training funding to encourage cross-collaboration between academic and industrial partners.


Final thoughts on the values of Networks

It is noteworthy that as part of the careers report recently published by the British Society for Immunology, networking and communications were identified as necessary skills required for immunologists today. The ability to network placed fourth (39%) in the top five skills needed, yet also placed third (32%) in the top five skills lacked. Through funding these five Networks encompassing a wide range of vaccinology topics, the MRC and BBSRC hope to assist immunologists furthering their careers. Through bringing together both established and early-career immunologists, together with others outside the wide field of immunology, these Networks will enable broader knowledge-sharing, capacitybuilding and sustainable future collaborations – both within the UK and with LMIC partners.

Martin Broadstock

Programme Manager for Immunology  and Vaccines, Medical Research Council

If you would like to find out more, the Networks will have a joint stand at the BSI Congress in Brighton where you can learn more about their activities and how to get involved.

This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Immunology News, the membership magazine of the British Society for Immunology.  Members can access the full issue of the magazine via our membership portal