Interview with Dr Rebecca McLean, The Pirbright Institute

14 Aug 2018

Dr Rebecca McLean from The Pirbright Institute discusses her involvement in an exciting international project to develop a vaccine to protect pigs against Nipah virus.

What is your name and job title? 

Dr Rebecca McLean, Post-Doctoral Researcher and Project Manager at The Pirbright Institute.

Tell us about how you got to where you are today

I studied for my BSc in Bio Veterinary Science at Harper Adams University.  During this time completed a year in industry at the Animal Health Trust, Newmarket.  It was here that my interest in research was sparked.  After completing my degree, I moved to Scotland to undertake my PhD developing a novel lentiviral vector vaccine delivery system for use in livestock.  Here, I was based at Moredun Research Institute and supervised by Dr David Griffiths, Professor Gary Entrican and Professor Jayne Hope.  After completing my PhD, I moved to Surrey to start my first post-doctoral position at The Pirbright Institute.  Here I am helping to managing an international consortium which is developing an inexpensive, safe and effective vaccine to protect pigs against Nipah virus (NiV).

What sparked your interest in veterinary vaccines? 

I have always had a keen interest in veterinary science, in particular vaccine development for the livestock industry.  I enjoy the wide array of challenges that surround the development of veterinary vaccines such as limited reagents and discussions with farmers.  I hope that one day I will make a difference!

Tell us about your research?

My current research focused on the development of a vaccine against NiV. NiV causes a severe and often fatal neurological disease in humans. Whilst fruit bats are considered the natural reservoir, NiV also infects pigs and may cause an unapparent or mild disease. Direct pig-to-human transmission was responsible for the first and still most devastating NiV outbreaks in Malaysia and Singapore in 1998-99, with nearly 300 human cases and over 100 fatalities. Pigs can therefore play a key role in the epidemiology of NiV by acting as an ‘amplifying’ host. The outbreak in Singapore ended with the prohibition of pig imports from Malaysia and the Malaysian outbreak was ended by culling 45% of the country’s pig population.

The development of an inexpensive, safe and efficacious vaccine for use in pigs to protect against NiV infection and transmission will reduce the risk to public health.  The vaccine will also reduce the major risk NiV poses to both the nascent developing pig industries, as well as to the livelihoods of poor livestock keepers in South and Southeast Asia. This project will also provide a solid basis for the further evaluation of the vaccine for protection of humans against NiV infection.

More specifically, my role in this project has involved evaluating vaccine specific T-cell immune responses elicited by the three candidate vaccines as well as co-ordinating overarching project activities such as videoconferences and overseeing budgets and collaborative agreements.

This project will provide:

the first head-to-head comparison of the efficacy against challenge of recombinant NiV vaccines in a target species (pigs)

the first examination of the ability of vaccines to block NiV transmission

the first systematic analysis of T and B cell immune responses in a target host to NiV vaccines to define correlates for protective immunity

Consequently, we should be well placed at completion of the project to proceed to the next stages of development of a commercial NiV vaccine for use in pig populations within the low- and middle-income country setting. By defining correlates of protection in pigs, this project will support human vaccine licensure under the Animal Rule as efficacy trials in humans are unlikely to be possible.

We wouldn’t be able to undertake this project alone, so we have the pleasure of working with top scientists from The Jenner Institute, Oxford; CSIRO Health and Biosecurity, Australia; University of Queensland, Australia; University of Malaya, Malaysia; Assam Agricultural University, India and Zoetis. This project is funded by UK Department of Health and Social Care through the Innovate UK SBRI Vaccines for Global Epidemics – Clinical competition.

To keep up to date with our progress over the next few years, follow us via our website.

What benefits do you hope to get from being a member of the International Veterinary Vaccinology Network? 

The IVVN is a great platform for veterinary vaccinologists to share ideas and knowledge. The pump-priming funding opportunities the IVVN offer are a fantastic source to help advance vaccine research projects to the point where they can hopefully secure larger funding streams. The support that the IVVN are providing the European Research Council in the UK and LMICs is helping to foster expertise in this important field.

What advice you would pass on?

Don’t be afraid to jump in at the deep end and do something out of your comfort zone. It may seem daunting at first, but most of the time it will provide you with invaluable experiences.  The IVVN has many opportunities including attending conferences, setting up workshopslab exchanges and pump-priming grants.