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.

An Outbreak of inspiration

After one of our Professors, Sanushka Naidoo, challenged us to think about what it is that inspires us and what we aspire to be, I stumbled onto an opinion piece titled, “Why Universities need to tell better stories.” You might be wondering what aspiration and communication have to do with one another and I hope to make that clear by the end of this blog.

Like many of my fellow scientists, I was inspired to do science. The inspiration came not from a wonderful biology teacher or a visit to a local lab but rather from a movie called “Outbreak,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman. I was ten at the time (I know, where were my parents?) and after watching “Outbreak” five or six times, I decided I wanted to be just like the scientists I had seen on TV, working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I was going to rid the world of HIV and Ebola.

Credit: https://www.empireonline.com/movies/outbreak/review/ 

This kept me going for years! After I completed my undergraduate degree in microbiology, I applied for an Honours hoping to get a project with a Professor of virology, someone who studies viruses. Unfortunately, at that time they were only accepting female students. I then had to change my focus and ended up, thankfully, working on plant pathogens instead. You see, shortly after I started my Honours, I learned that I couldn’t handle blood all that well, and seeing that Ebola is a haemorrhagic disease that makes one bleed (a lot), I was lucky to have made the switch. Nine years later, I am a PhD candidate still working with plant pathogens and I haven’t looked back since.

While “Outbreak” isn’t strictly science communication, it did do a lot to inform me about what some viruses can do, how they spread and the risks they pose; even if it was a little “Hollywood.” Yes, it was a work of fiction shot in a studio in the United States but some of the images portrayed in the film reminded me of some of the photographs that captured the tragedy of the 1995 Ebola outbreak in Zaire. The release of “Outbreak” at the time of the Zaire outbreak popularized our concerns about a deadly virus spreading and so also created awareness about these deadly Ebola-like viruses. Remember this happened at a time when social media did not exist. If you didn’t learn about the outbreak from the TV, radio or newspaper, then the cinema was going to show it to you.

My work may seem less exciting to some, especially when you’re standing in a conversation with someone who works on cancer therapies or has found new ways to harness energy from the sun, but I have some wonderful stories waiting to be told. So do many others. Much of the world’s research happens at institutions of higher learning, by the researchers and students who work there. They research everything from HIV and evolution to cyber security and politics.

At the University of Pretoria, they have recently started something called “Research Matters.” This is one way of showcasing some of the most relevant research happening in South Africa, on its campuses. With the help of social media, the university is trying to generate a larger audience to share these stories with. While this is a start for research communication at our university, I often wondered if it shouldn’t be us, the scientists, getting ourselves and our work out there to the people who fund it and benefit from it.

There are journalists, or science journalists, for that. Yes, there are, and they have a role to play in communicating science but I think there are other ways for us to share our science too. Beyond communicating with the scientific community through scientific papers, posters and talks I have learned to get in touch with a broader audience about my work and other topics using my drawings, cartoons, creative pieces and even blogs. If I had the budget and the time, I think I would even make a film about it.

I have been told that I do not fit the typical scientist mold but I doubt anyone would be happy fitting a mold. We are all unique. Just because we are scientists doesn’t mean that we are only good at science. Some of my colleagues also sing, dance, rap, act, write, summarize talks in three minutes or less and, believe it or not, do it well; sometimes better than the science bit. Using these and other talents in innovative ways can create unique avenues for us to share our research and communicate these stories.

During my PhD, I really started to see what being a scientist was like. After struggling to communicate with friends and family about my work, I realized that I was like Motaba, the virus in “Outbreak.” The scientists “got me” but no one in the general public wanted me. If I didn’t evolve my way of thinking, my work would “infect” just a few and that’s when it clicked, I need an outbreak. If we are to share the wonderfully infectious world of science, we are going to need to be more infective!