I am a virologist and Lecturer in Global Health at St George’s University of London, where I also hold a Medical Research Foundation Fellowship. I have extensive experience with viruses of great importance for human health, including HIV-1, Ebolavirus and Poliovirus. In the academic context, I combine molecular and cellular biology approaches to elucidate fundamental steps of the virus life cycle and its interaction with the host. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, I gained invaluable experience first as team leader of a molecular diagnostics laboratory in rural Sierra Leone (2015), and then as Public Health England (PHE) in-country lead (2015-2016).
During the lockdown in early 2020, I led the establishment of SARS-CoV-2 research at the Institute for Infection and Immunity, St George’s University of London, where we have now a dedicated containment laboratory (CL3) for both fundamental and translational corona-virology. I make the most of the great collaborative environment at St George's and work closely with both academic and clinical academic colleagues. Indeed, a PhD student in my group focusses on elucidating how SARS-CoV-2 infects a variety of cells, including respiratory and vascular cells. This aims to understand the constellation of symptoms seen in COVID-19 patients.
I am honoured to hold a personal fellowship from he Medical Research Foundation to support my research on a major contributor to the global burden of food/water-borne diseases: hepatitis A virus (HAV). The public health burden of HAV is heaviest in low middle-income countries (LMIC) with intermediate seroprevalence: improvements in economic and sanitary conditions reduce childhood infections, but also result in accumulation of naïve adults when levels of circulating virus remain high. Paradoxically, adult-acquired infections present more severe pathology and carry a higher risk of fatal outcomes than in children. This is strikingly similar to what happens in the context of SARS-CoV-2 infections.
Although WHO encourages all its member states to vaccinate against HAV, low availability and high costs of the current vaccine (inactivated virus) have proven insurmountable challenges. Therefore, my research focusses on generating a novel HAV vaccine, made by expressing the viral structural proteins in mammalian and plant systems, as valid and cheaper new standard.
HAV is not just a threat in LMIC: outbreaks linked to sexual intercourse, food suppliers and school canteens are becoming increasingly larger and more frequent in high-income countries, including the UK.
I am very keen for my research to have impact beyond the laboratory and the UK. Indeed, having gained invaluable in-the-field experience over almost a year in West Africa during the Ebola Outbreak, now I wish to explore the global health impact of viral infections in LMIC. I wish to work together with clinicians to identify relevant virological questions and then tackle them together.
I am passionate about making virology and science accessible to the public and, in pandemic times, I feel strongly about helping the public make sense of it.
Follow me on Twitter @ViralRNA
Prof Julian Ma, SGUL, UK: vaccine development in plants
Prof Dave Rowlands, University of Leeds, UK: hepatitis A virus and picornaviruses; virus-like particles vaccines
Prof Stan Lemon, University of North Carolina, USA: hepatitis A virus
Dr Mike Strauss, McGill University, Canada: structural virology
Prof Dave Stuart, University of Oxford, UK: structural virology