Developing vaccine technology that changes the lives of millions of people inspires researcher Dr Natalie Connors.
Dr Natalie Connors - Bachelor of Science (First Class Honours) – ’05 and Doctor of Philosophy – ’12.
Connors is developing vaccine production technologies that may result in cheaper, more readily available vaccination programs throughout the world.
“My work involves developing a vaccine platform, using a virus-like particle (VLP), that can be manipulated and used to suit any virus or bacteria, in order to create or improve a vaccine.
“I am targeting influenza and rotavirus, but the technology can be used for anything that has a known antigen, and VLPs have already been used for vaccines such as Gardasil®,” she explained.
Traditionally, vaccines are produced by inactivating or mutating a virus or bacteria to create a weaker version, which is then presented to a human immune system. There are limitations with this approach.
“Current vaccine production processes are time-consuming and costly, and can be unsafe too, as you are growing live bacteria to make a vaccine,” said Connors.
In contrast, the new technology takes a VLP — a simple mouse virus — and attaches components of another virus or bacterium to its shell, where it naturally self-assembles into an exact replica of the live virus. The crucial difference is that the VLP lacks the infectious genome that would make it a real and harmful virus.
“Essentially it is just a protein, but it convincingly presents itself to the human body as the highly infectious disease it is imitating,” said Connors.
A benefit of the technology is safety: by removing the infectious component of a virus from the vaccine, the virus cannot be contracted or transmitted into the environment. The process also reduces production times drastically.
“When a new strain of influenza is discovered, we can’t wait up to six months for that vaccine to be readily available. Our VLP vaccine platform can reduce production times to a couple of weeks.”
There is also a financial incentive.
“Current technologies price vaccines beyond one dollar per dose,” said Connors, “yet a VLP vaccine could cost less than one cent per dose, and the obvious beneficiaries of this would be people in developing countries.”
With additional funding, Connors could see potential in taking the research further, and integrating the technology with the NanopatchTM, which was developed by Professor Mark Kendall.
In February, vaccine technology company Vaxxas, a start-up of UQ’s main commercialisation company, UniQuest, attracted $25 million in funding led by Australian venture capital firm OneVentures to further the NanopatchTM.
Connors’ research is complementary, with support for vaccine research from investors reflecting the tremendous impact the technology might have in people’s lives.
“Any program that combines cutting- edge technology in vaccine delivery, such as the NanopatchTM, with cutting-edge technology in vaccines, such as VLPs, can only be a good thing, particularly for people in developing countries,” she said.