Hey young scientist, why don’t you make the vaccine?

I was on a phone call the other day and my aunt jokingly asked me the question – “why don’t you and your colleagues there in pharmacology find the cure to this COVID-19 pandemic?” Well, I giggled a little, but her question was justified to an extent. The field of pharmacology is involved in the process of developing new drugs.  Pharmacology is a branch of medicine that focuses on studying the uses, effects, and mechanisms of action of drugs. The field focuses on observing the relationship between complex biological systems and chemical compounds that affect them. Often confused with pharmacy, a field that focuses on the preparation and dispensing of medication, pharmacology focusses on studying abnormalities that occur in various diseases and investigating drugs that can potentially overcome such aberrations.

The development of drugs is a costly and time-consuming process. It takes approximately 12-15 years of research and can cost as much as R40 billion Rand for a single drug to reach the point where it is available on the market (shown in the figure below). In pharmacology, there are three broad branches of research involved in the research and development of drugs: basic research, clinical research and regulatory pharmacology.

 Figure 1: Overview of the drug development process.

In basic research, a large number of chemical compounds are tested in the lab to elucidate their potential efficacy in targeting some aspects associated with the disease in question. Such experiments involve testing compounds on cells isolated from humans and grown under sterile conditions (cell culture). In cell culture, it is very important that the experiments are done in a way that provides reliable clues of results to be obtained when human or animal experiments done. My PhD is focused on developing advanced cell culture models that allow for better predictions of such results. Below is a 3-minute video explaining how we exactly intend to do that.

When satisfactory results are obtained from cell cultures, the efficacy of drugs is then investigated on animal models (rats, mice, pigs, horses, fish, and many others). All experiments are conducted in accordance with strict ethical guidelines, and when efficacy and lack of toxicity is inferred from these experiments, clinical studies are then conducted.

Clinical research involves the investigation of the efficacy and safety of drugs in human beings. In these investigations, people voluntarily enrol in clinical trials, which consist of various phases. Although many drugs show remarkable potential in basic research, many drugs are eliminated in clinical trials due to harmful effects and/or lack of efficacy. This difference in the results obtained in basic research and clinical studies can be attributed to the obvious difference between animals and human beings.

When clinical data has been completed, it is compiled and sent to regulatory bodies for thorough review and approval before a drug is available on the market. Various regulatory authorities are responsible for ensuring that all guidelines were followed when developing drugs. Such regulations are carried out by regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration in America and the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority here in South Africa. After it has been proven that all regulatory requirements are met, the drug is finally approved to be available in the market, and you can finally see it in your local pharmacy or hospital.

You may be wondering…. if it takes so long to develop a single drug, how did we manage to have the COVID-19 vaccine in such a short space of time. Well, in respect to basic pharmacological research, similar viruses to the one that caused the pandemic have been studied for a long time, hence it was relatively easy to figure out a vaccine approach to the new coronavirus. Secondly, in some diseases, it takes a long time to recruit participants into a clinical trial. With COVID-19 clinical studies, it was quick to recruit patients, due to the existence of a pandemic, which mean a large number of people were readily available to participate in the studies. Additionally, funds were made available by governments and various to assist in conducting these trials. Lastly, regulatory approval application for COVID-19 based studies had to be prioritized, and this shortened the usually long times as well. Thankfully, we finally have many vaccines against this devastating pandemic.

So, going back to my aunt’s question, it is a big challenge for myself as a PhD student to create a vaccine that can be readily taken by people, given the rigorous process and costs that go into drug development. However, as different researchers across the world, we individually make our contributions to the field of drug development, and these concerted contributions eventually culminate in real-life health solutions.

One more thing COVID-19 and lockdowns have changed drastically: Scientific conferences

Attendees at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology in Kyoto, Japan.

Conducting research can be one of the most laborious things for a person to do. It involves identifying gaps in the current body of knowledge and providing clues to various unanswered questions within a specific field. The approach differs slightly between various research specialties. In my field, Pharmacology, it involves reading a lot of scientific papers, planning and conducting of experiments, and ultimately publishing the obtained results in the form of journal articles and a Doctoral thesis. In all of this, there is one specifically exciting and rewarding part… sharing your findings with peers at scientific conferences.

Academic conferences are a platform where researchers meet to share research ideas and discoveries. This is usually done via oral presentations by senior researchers and presentations of posters by students. Conferences are a valuable platform that allow for collaboration and establishment of relations among academics. Typically, conferences run over a period of 4-5 days, and are a worthwhile experience, especially for young researchers.

Personally, attending conferences offered me an opportunity to travel out of the African continent for the first time. I got to travel to Lindau Germany to meet Nobel Prize winners. For any young scientist, being selected to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting is a huge privilege. Not only did I get to meet and have discussions with Nobel Laureates for the first time in my life, I also met and interacted and shared research experiences with PhD students from the most prestigious universities in the world. As a result of being selected for this meeting, I was featured in an article from the largest newspaper publishing in my city. As such, this meeting will remain a major highlight of my academic career.

From Germany, I immediately travelled to Japan to present my research findings at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology. We had booked the return tickets to both countries during different times, and I had to first travel back to South Africa the whole day, and immediately connect to Hong Kong for a 14-hour flight, before taking another 4-hour flight to Japan. As you can imagine, I was fatigued when I got to Japan, but experiencing the difference in the landscape and way of life in Japan compared to Africa rendered the fatigue was worth it! I found one thing bizarre though, some individuals wore facial masks in public, are rare sighting in the South Africa at the time. It turns out, Japan has a long history of disease outbreaks, and with the current advent of COVID-19, I now understand why they wore masks in public. The conference was abuzz with researchers from across the globe, who shared ground-breaking findings from their individual labs.

In addition to these international conferences, local conferences have afforded me the opportunity to meet peers form various Universities in South Africa, with whom I have exchanged research findings and ideas. Conferences have also offered me an opportunity to display my presentation skills. As a consequence I was given the Young Scientist Award in Basic Pharmacology for the 2nd best podium presentation at the First Conference of Biomedical and Natural Sciences and Therapeutics in 2018, while my late colleague lab mate got the 1st prize.

Left: Myself, presenting a  poster in Kyoto Japan at a world Pharmacology conference. Right: colleagues and myself carrying awards at a National Science conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Unfortunately, the global wave of lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered conducting science conferences in person a challenging task. As a result, there has been an increase in online research conferences, as a way to sustain the level of academic exchange during these difficult times. Virtual meetings have many advantages, including a decrease in the financial burden and ease of access. A screen with multiple faces (figure below), and phrases like “please mute your mic” have been a familiar feature over the past year. Although the online environment allows for easy organization of meetings, I personally feel like the social connection that usually happens during person to person interactions is lost. For example, when I am presenting I love making eye contact with people in the audience as a way of evaluating their level of concentration. This falls away when your audience is behind muted mics and cameras and all one has to stare at is a computer screen.

The 2021 South Young African Academy of Science blogging team, meeting for the first time, in a virtual meeting earlier this year.

Person to person interaction during conferences fosters the establishment of relations and collaboration amongst researchers, and this is not particularly easy to do in a virtual setting. With vaccination strategies being rolled out in various countries being rolled out, I am hopeful that COVID-19 and lockdowns will soon be a thing of the past and we can safely resume physical conferences.