Curiosity Killed the Virus: The Story Behind the New Vaccine for Foot-And-Mouth Disease

03/27/2013 11:15 pm 23:15:22 | Updated 27 May 2013

Virtually every great scientific discovery, from the theory of gravity to the invention of antibiotics, has emerged out of one simple principle: curiosity.

Together with a collaboration of scientists from various UK institutions, we have developed a new methodology for producing a vaccine, which is safer, and potentially more economical and more effective. We still have a long way to go before the vaccine reaches the market, but the signs from early clinical trials are very promising.

The vaccine is targeted at foot-and-mouth disease (FMDV); a plague of livestock that is endemic throughout much of the world, costs $5 billion a year, and causes much suffering in poor countries. However, the methodology may well transfer to other, similar viruses that affect humans, such as polio, meaning that it could provide a potent new tool in global disease control.

This discovery is the culmination of decades of research. I began looking at FMDV in 1985, at a time when research into the structure of viruses was seen by many as neither plausible nor useful. I was put in touch with a collection of virologists at the Wellcome Foundation.

One man in particular, Professor Fred Brown, became formative to my approach to virus research. He maintained, despite widespread scepticism from the science community, that identifying virus structures was fundamental to combating their effects. Brown worked according to a simple scientific principle: with understanding comes power.

Spurred by this support, we continued with the work until, in 1989, we solved the structure of FMDV. There is a unique feeling that accompanies being the first person to ever lay eyes on something like that. But the joy of discovery was tinged with disappointment. Research into FMDV vaccine was cut back.

We had so many ideas to explore, but we didn't have the resources or the technology to pursue them. So our FMDV research was essentially put on hold. Meanwhile, I began looking into the structures of other viruses, including the proteins of HIV, EV71 and bluetongue virus.

This pause in progress came to a swift end following the 2001 outbreak, when FMDV encroached again upon the shores of Great Britain. The vaccine we have today is a UK-led discovery; the result of an initiative that was borne out of the 2001 crisis. Funding from Defra, the Wellcome Trust, BBSRC, MRC and the STFC allowed us to bring together some of the best in UK virus research to help combat the disease.

A collaborative group of scientists and agencies, assembled by Dr. Bryan Charleston, Head of Livestock Viral Disease Programme at the Pirbright institute, developed the pioneering vaccine methodology at Pirbright, Oxford University, Reading University, and the UK's synchrotron, Diamond Light Source.

But it wasn't always a certainty that we would be successful. Scientists sometimes spend their entire lives researching one particular area; only to find that nothing practical emerges from it. However, without that thirst for understanding that drives all science, we would be without many of the world's great discoveries.

It is deeply satisfying when we are able to use scientific knowledge to better people's lives, and it is my sincere hope that the vaccine will eventually help improve things on a global scale. I would be overjoyed to see something we contributed to making a difference in the world.

However, there is still plenty of work to be done. There are myriad elements of nature that we are yet to understand. For instance, we know that antibodies protect against viruses, but we're still not quite sure how they do it. If we look closely at that process, if we can figure it out, then perhaps we can develop ways to improve the immune response or disable the virus.

Fred Brown was right back in the 1980s; understanding is the key to power. This vaccine is not the end for me or for any of us involved in the research. We're still scientists, and so we're still curious. I don't think that will ever change.