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The Impact of Giving (part 1): Sir Joseph Hotung funding

Published: 14 January 2021

Professor Julian Ma, whose work at St George's has received funding from Sir Joseph Hotung Professor Julian Ma, whose work at St George's has received funding from Sir Joseph Hotung

This new series of articles will profile the stories behind major donations received by the University and their impact on research and education. This first edition focuses on work funded by Sir Joseph Hotung.

Not many people who work outside of a laboratory can say that they’ve possibly changed the landscape for how medicines are produced on a global scale. However, through funding key research at St George’s, it’s quite possible that Sir Joseph Hotung has influenced the way that new drugs will go on to be developed for years to come. 

By investing in a research group focused on “molecular pharming”, Sir Joseph could have opened the doors for cheaper, more accessible drugs across a variety of conditions and diseases.

What is molecular pharming?

Molecular pharming is the process by which medicines, such as antibodies or vaccines, are produced in plants through biotechnology. These biologics can then be harvested from the plants and made into functional treatments or vaccines – unique to the disease or condition they were designed for.

At St George’s, the molecular pharming effort is led by Professor Julian Ma, Director of the Institute for Infection & Immunity. His research aims to find ways to successfully produce working antibody treatments from genetically altered plants.

Led by Professor Ma, the Hotung Molecular Immunology research group works on the treatment and prevention of diseases that are major concerns in lower- and middle-income countries, including HIV, tuberculosis, rabies, dengue and Chikungunya.

The team have made significant progress, and in particular, are close to being able to start clinical trials for one of their products; an antibody cocktail designed to prevent transmission of HIV from pregnant mothers to their children.

However, working in what is still considered to be a relatively small field, this could not have happened without significant backing at the start of the research.

Funding new ideas

“Sir Joseph invested in St George’s before I joined,” says Professor Ma. “He was the reason why I came here.”

Back in 2003, Sir Joseph pledged to donate multi-millions to fund two Research Chairs (professorships) at the University for 10 years and a research team and their laboratory needs.

The funding enabled Professor Ma to set up a laboratory at the University, including a state-of-the-art plant growth facility, which acts as a controlled environment for growing the genetically modified plans. The award also helped to support post-doctoral researchers, who have since gone on to build their own careers, including Professor Rajko Reljic, who was recently awarded his professorship in immunology at St George’s, Dr Pascal Drake and Dr Audrey Teh.

Since 2003, embedded within St. George’s strengths in Global Health Professor Ma’s research group has made significant advances towards developing new treatments for important diseases of low- and middle-income countries, which would not have been possible without the funding by Sir Joseph. Equally importantly, Professor Ma and his team have been able to influence the field of molecular pharming beyond St George’s.

In the last 15 years, he has led three multi-million Euro EU funded projects in the field, establishing St George’s as an international centre for the specialty and attracting young scientists from all over the world to train in the field.

“With the reputation we developed and the network of international collaborations that were facilitated by Sir Joseph’s support, I set up an international society for molecular pharming,” he says. The society now has 180 members, stimulating research in the field across the world and encouraging the recruitment of new young scientists .

From HIV to anti-venom

Following the end of the initial 10 years of funding, Professor Ma’s group have benefited from further funding from Sir Joseph to support a specific project into developing antibodies that will prevent the spread of HIV from pregnant mothers to their children.

“In many countries, HIV transmission to babies is still an issue,” says Professor Ma. “Many pregnant mothers aren’t seen by clinicians until they are in the third trimester of pregnancy, by which point the current treatments aren’t effective. There are also growing incidences of resistance to the current therapies.

“Our plan is to look for an alternative therapy for mothers in the second or third trimester,” he continues. 

“We identified the top antibody candidates that could be given in combination to pregnant women and then sought to optimise them so that they stay in the body throughout the critical period of childbirth.”

Having assessed the production of these antibodies in their plant system, the team have tested the antibodies in mice and moving on to produce large batches of the treatment in preparation for human trials.

“The development of new medicines is notoriously difficult with many failures along the way” says Professor Ma. “Our progress in getting HIV antibodies into clinical trials using a new manufacturing platform has been extraordinary, and only made possible through the sustained and generous support from Sir Joseph Hotung”.

As well as the work funded by Sir Joseph, Professor Ma’s team are adapting the same process to develop antibodies to prevent bacterial diarrhoea, which is a major cause of death in new-born children. This project was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The molecular pharming group are also investigating using plants to grow antibodies against deadly snake venoms. This will be particularly important in countries in South-East Asia and South America, where anti-venoms are in short supply and expensive. Being able to grow these treatments in plants could provide a unique, affordable option to save lives.

Funding the future

Funding to open up new avenues can be vital to getting projects off the ground, and as in this case, may have impacts far beyond the initial investment.

By supporting postdoctoral researchers, Sir Joseph’s funds have gone on to kickstart the careers of several scientists, including Professor Reljic (see above) and Dr Audrey Teh, recently appointed as a Lecturer at St George’s. Dr Teh was recently awarded her own funding by Cancer Research UK to develop molecular pharming for treatment of certain cancers.

The field of molecular pharming is also growing at an increasing pace. The biotechnology company, Medicago, have recently used the technology to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, which has completed phase I trials. Following the company’s prior development of a flu vaccine in plants, the ball is now well and truly rolling on molecular pharming for vaccines, showing promise for other research teams globally.

Research very often has influences that stretch beyond the initial challenges they strive to solve. In the case of Professor Ma’s team and molecular pharming, a donation from more than 15 years ago is now bearing fruit across the drug development community.

Speaking on the impact of funding at St George’s, Deputy Principal for Research & Enterprise, Professor Jon Friedland adds, “Major donations to the University are crucial in allowing us to advance our efforts in delivering transformative research.

“As the UK’s specialist health university, such income can be pivotal, boosting our ability to upscale and develop our research and education, tackling real life health issues and making a difference to people’s lives throughout the UK and around the world.”

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