Julian Ma joined St. George’s in October 2003, leading a research team that specialises in immunology and the production of recombinant pharmaceuticals using plant biotechnology (molecular pharming). His research is particularly focused on using biotechnology tools to produce novel pharmaceutical proteins to improve global access to modern medicines.
Professor Ma graduated in Dentistry at Guy’s Hospital in 1983, where he also gained his PhD in Immunology under Prof Thomas Lehner, studying anti-microbial immunotherapy using monoclonal antibodies.
As a post-doctoral fellow in Dr Andrew Hiatt’s laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California, Prof Ma was a pioneer in the engineering, expression and assembly of monoclonal antibodies in transgenic plants. He returned to Guy’s in 1992 and was subsequently awarded an Advanced Training Fellowship by the Wellcome Trust. In 1997 he was made Consultant in Immunology and Oral Immunotherapy at Guy’s Hospital Dental School, the first consultant appointment in Oral Immunology in the UK.
Professor Ma was the scientific co-ordinator of Pharma-Planta, from 2004-2011, a €12M European Union Framework Programme 6 project to develop pharmaceuticals from plant-derived proteins. He was subsequently awarded an ERC Advanced Grant to develop further plant biotechnology derived medicines to clinical trials. He is currently the Principal Investigator for Pharma-Factory, an €8.3M EU Horizon 2020 project to advance the commercial pipeline of products from molecular pharming.
He was the vice chair for the European COST Action on Molecular Farming from 2009-2013 that co-ordinated molecular farming research and policy activities in 28 European countries. He subsequently founded the International Society for Plant Molecular Farming and was the founding President 2013-2016.
Julian Ma’s research focuses on the development and production of recombinant protein medicines, through plant biotechnology. By using plants such as tobacco, as production hosts for pharmaceutical proteins, his research group works on the treatment and prevention of diseases that are major concerns in developing countries – including HIV, tuberculosis, rabies, dengue and chikungunya.
Molecular Pharming - the production of recombinant pharmaceutical proteins using plant biotechnology - represents an unprecedented opportunity to manufacture affordable modern medicines and make these available at a global scale. The area of greatest potential is in the prevention of infectious diseases, particular in underdeveloped countries where access to medicines and vaccines has historically been limited.
Julian Ma’s group’s research ranges from basic mechanisms of protein assembly, processing and expression in plant cells, to molecular engineering and characterisation of pharmaceutical candidates for infectious disease, as well as the translation of these candidates into human clinical trials.
The group were amongst the first to investigate the production of monoclonal antibodies in transgenic plants. They use antibodies as a model for protein assembly and stability, examining interactions between the antibody light and heavy chains in the endoplasmic reticulum as well as their interactions with molecular chaperones, including the HSP70 BiP. The group also explore the basis for antibody degradation within the plant secretory pathway as well as post-secretion, to identify strategies to minimise proteolytic breakdown and maximise yield.
Professor Ma’s group reported the first approach to assembly of a multimeric monoclonal secretory IgA (SIgA) using transgenic tobacco plants. They are particularly interested in engineering SIgA antibodies for passive gastro-intestinal immunisation to prevent enteric infections. They have also produced a number of other mAbs and are investigating the use of plants to manufacture affordable monoclonal antibody cocktail products for HIV (microbicide and peri-natal applications), rabies (post-exposure prophylaxis) and Chikungunya virus (therapy). Recently, an important research and development hurdle was overcome, when as part of a European consortium (Pharma-Planta), the group completed the first approved clinical trial of a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) - compliant monoclonal antibody produced in plants.
The group are also exploiting the ability of plants to assemble complex proteins to engineer novel vaccine candidates. Early work demonstrated the production of recombinant monoclonal immune complexes using antibody-antigen fusions, further work is now building on this experience to design similar molecular structures with potent inherent adjuvant properties for immunisation against dengue and tuberculosis. Professor Ma’s group are also trying to develop novel therapeutic agents for control of rabies infection in the central nervous system.
For an overview of Julian Ma's research field, listen to Julian interviewed on 'Molecular Farming: The Future of Pharmaceuticals', an episode of The Scientist Speaks, a podcast produced by The Scientist. (November 2021)
You can also watch Julian's TEDxWandsworth talk, 'How to improve global health with a lethal killer' from December 2015.