Students taking EA's summer Immunology and Microbiology course had the rare opportunity to hear from a scientist working on the frontline of COVID-19 vaccine research and development.
Dr. Paul Burton, who is the Chief Global Medical Affairs Officer for Janssen Pharmaceuticals, spoke to students about the process of making a new vaccine and the stages of clinical trials on Tuesday, July 7.
The course, taught by Upper School science teacher Diane Radov, focuses on the intricacies of the immune system. Dr. Burton discussed the challenges of vaccine development, especially under intense time pressure. He also provided insight on what it is like working in the Pharmaceutical Industry.
"I feel like it gave us a little more insight into the mechanics of the development of vaccines, which is crucial in this unprecedented time, and listening to his expertise in this given topic allowed for some clarification into the uncertainties in the development of the vaccine," observed Emily Staid '22.
Dr. Burton explained to students that, on average, bringing a vaccine to market takes about seven years, which the industry is currently trying to cut down to mere months. "We are taking a process that has generally taken years and condensing it down to hopefully around seven months with the collaboration of pharmaceutical companies," said Dr. Burton.
"I thought it was super interesting how he was able to link what we are learning in class to what is going on in the real world," shared Anika Kakarla '23. "He talked in depth about the three phases of vaccine development and what each of them entails. I also thought it was really interesting when he explained the difficulties of making a vaccine for COVID in particular."
"I thought it was really interesting to hear what he had to say not only because of how informative and intriguing his work is, but because of how applicable it is to our lives right now," observed Rachel Letts '22. "Obviously right now a vaccine for Coronavirus is on the top of everyone's minds, and hearing about the specifics behind this vaccine's development as it's going through its testing stages was incredible. While this experience was definitely a highlight of the course, so far we've been able to learn so much about the aspects of the immune system and lymphatic system, and how they work."
After his presentation on vaccines, Dr. Burton fielded questions from students. Asked whether animals are always involved in the testing process of vaccines, Dr. Burton explained the definition of IND, or "Investigational New Drug process," in which the FDA studies the basic toxicology of new drugs. "The FDA requires that you have to do the IND process with animals before you can move the trials to man," said Dr. Burton. "Today, however, the amount of animal testing is at the absolute minimum, and wherever we can swap out doing animal testing for any other model, we do."
"I asked Dr. Burton about the role of ACE-II receptors or angiotensin-converting enzyme-2, which are around our lungs, and their connection with the Coronavirus, Covid-19's spike proteins," explained Sabrina Burnetta '23. "They have shown to 'connect' to these ACE-II receptors with 10-20 times greater affinity than the Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-1) that caused the SARS outbreak."
Dr. Burton explained that the lack of receptors does not target the virus directly, and that is why Jansenn Pharmaceuticals is creating a vaccine that will hopefully provide humoral and active immunity from the direct Covid-19 pathogen. Sabrina shared, "I found it interesting that the ACE-II deficiency is now known to cause the exacerbation of hypertension and cardiac hypertrophy, all induced by ANG-II. This was the most interesting thing I learned because on the surface it seems 'oh, it's an easy fix, get rid of the carrier of the virus and you won't get it,' but the body reacts in incredible, yet sometimes detrimental ways. As we see here, with the removal of one bad thing, the proliferation of another bad thing can transpire."
Teaching the for-credit course virtually is challenging, but Ms. Radov credits her students for being fully engaged and pushing themselves to learn the tough material. "The students are learning this material at a very high level. I used college textbooks to help build the course from scratch," explained Ms. Radov. "They are learning about how the immune system works at a cellular level. Now, we are starting to move into the microbiology portion, which will focus on the bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, and worms that try to compromise our immune system."
"It's one thing to hear about progress on a vaccine in the news or online, but to hear it from someone who has a large role in this research was really amazing. It provided a whole new perspective and insight into the process," said Caden Collins '23. "One of my favorite parts of biology in general is understanding how the material you learn can be applied in many different ways, which is why I thought Dr. Burton talking about how they used gene editing to help create their vaccine was particularly interesting. We learned a lot about that in my 9th grade biology class, and it was really neat to see how it could be applied in the field of immunology and vaccines."
Written by EA Communications intern Julia DePillis '18.