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.

What I get up to when I am not PhDing

One particular question I always struggle to answer is: “Keith, what are your hobbies?” This is due to the amount of time that research consumes, rendering it a challenge to have regular hobbies. Work does not simply end when I leave the university’s gates, as I often have to take some work with me to complete from home. This involves preparing lectures, reviewing documents submitted by junior students, writing papers, amongst a few other things. Working is an integral part of our daily routine, to the extent that I feel like academic responsibilities consume most of my time. Despite this, there are moments when I do find time for non-academic activities.

I love adventure and seeing new places when I do get the chance to. There’s this one activity I have always looked forward to doing for such a long time… skydiving, and I finally managed to go for a tandem jump at Skydive Pretoria early this year. I generally love aviation, but the idea of safely jumping off a moving aeroplane has always excited me. The experience I got was far much better than I expected. We took a 10-minute scenic ride on a light aircraft up to the dizzying height of approximately 3.4km above ground level, where we jumped off the aircraft as I was attached by a harness to an instructor. We then plunged into the rush of a 40-second freefall before the instructor opened the parachute, before guiding us to a safe landing on the ground. Although this is an experience that many people fear, it is certainly an activity I would love to do regularly, and I am considering obtaining a skydiving license so I can jump out of a plane alone. 

Myself jumping off an aircraft, attached to an instructor during a recent tandem jump in Pretoria.

In addition to jumping off planes, I also love reaching destinations. I believe travelling to different destinations broadens one’s understanding of this world, as you are exposed to diverse places and cultures. Fortunately for me, in our field, we get to travel to conferences both nationally and internationally, and this helps me enjoy my hobby while I complete schoolwork. I have travelled to Germany and Japan to conferences, opportunities I would not have been able to afford in my capacity. Travelling around South Africa for local conferences has also given me the chance to experience the true beauty of this country. Sadly though, as I mentioned in my previous blog, physical conferences are currently limited due to COVID-19 precautionary measures. Hopefully, we will get to travel to conferences once the pandemic is over. In my capacity, I travel to neighbouring countries such as Swaziland, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, and I am looking to explore other African countries a little bit more.

In addition to attending church regularly, one more thing I enjoy is spending time with high-school students for mentoring and teaching purposes. It is particularly concerning that a lot of students from disadvantaged backgrounds lack role models and people who can guide them to a bright future. Some colleagues and I started the Yakhanani High School mentorship Project, where we go to high schools in disadvantaged areas to mentor and teach children in high school, as a way of preparing them for University, and we usually do this on weekends. With the current COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, such mentoring is a challenge, and I hope we can resume the mentoring sessions soon.

Ultimately, besides these few activities, scientific research is my one true hobby, because it is something I enjoy. As the famous quote by Mark Twain says “find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” conducting research is not only a job for me, it is something I enjoy doing while I am working.