12:14pm Thursday 02 July 2020

Taking a novel approach to vaccine development

Vaccination is the most effective way to control infectious diseases, and has reduced or eradicated numerous diseases in both humans and animals. However, despite this success, there is a growing need for new and innovative vaccines to combat old and emerging diseases.

PhD graduate Jason Lee’s research focused on a novel approach to vaccine development by triggering disease-causing or related organisms to produce their own protective response. His work involved the production of self-assembling polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) vaccine particulates against disease caused by the pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa or Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Dr Lee graduated with a PhD in Microbiology, specialising in the fields of microbiology, molecular biology and immunology in Palmerston North last week.

“My project involved engineering the disease-causing or related organisms as a mini-factory to produce self-assembling vaccine particulates as carriers of the pathogen’s own antigens. In other words combating the pathogen with its own weapons,” Dr Lee says.

“Vaccination with these particulates will ultimately be used to induce protection against the very organism it was conceived from. Following vaccination, significant immune responses and preliminary insight into protective responses were detected when used in small animal trials. My research illustrates the feasibility of utilising the organism to produce its own vaccine, and also provides insight into their efficacy. This approach to vaccine design can be applied to a range of infectious diseases.”

The 32-year-old is now employed as a research scientist by PB Diagnostics Limited based in Palmerston North’s Hopkirk Research Institute, working on the development of in vitro diagnostics and prophylactic vaccines for animals, focusing on cattle and sheep.

Dr Lee says he always enjoyed science. “After acquiring my Bachelors of Science from Massey, I worked for a year at AgResearch, and that’s when I recognised the importance of gaining higher education in the sciences. I was given the opportunity to do my Masters under the supervision of Professor Bernd Rehm working with PHAs.”

PHAs are naturally occurring biopolyesters produced by many bacteria and can be engineered for a range of applications.

“After completing my Masters, I found work in a startup biotech called PolyBatics Limited, which focused on utilising PHAs as a platform technology from a range of applications. After working for a year, I again decided to go back to study and take the next step up,” the Hastings Boys High alumnus says.

“Luckily enough, an opportunity was available to do a PhD with Professor Rehm, in collaboration with AgResearch. It hasn’t been an easy road to get to this milestone, but thanks to my friends, family, and most importantly my wife to be, Yifang Tay, this journey has been made a lot easier.

“I would also like to give a big thanks to my supervisor Professor Bernd Rehm and my co-supervisors Bryce Buddle, Axel Heiser, and Neil Wedlock for allowing me this amazing opportunity. And to AgResearch, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Massey University, for funding my research.”

Massey University

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