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Cardiff scientists switch from cancer research to help develop coronavirus vaccine

3 April 2020

Dr Alan Parker
Dr Alan Parker

A team of Cardiff University scientists has switched from researching cancer to work that could help towards a vaccine for coronavirus.

The team at the School of Medicine usually work on reprogramming viruses so they can target and kill cancer - but are now focusing their efforts to help in the fight against the new virus which is gripping the world.

Dr Alan Parker and his team, whose work on cancer is funded by Cancer Research UK, are drawing on their expertise in viruses to seek out “tools” which could be used to deliver a vaccine.

Their work over the past seven years has centred on modified adenoviruses such as the common cold as viral vectors - or carriers - that can seek out and destroy cancer cells.

Over this time, Dr Parker and his team have a vast bank of different adenoviruses, and now they plan to hunt out - and recommission - the viruses that may potentially be used to deliver a vaccine for coronavirus.

They have already identified about half a dozen viral vectors which may be useful for encoding coronavirus antigens - the name for the part of the virus used to safely induce an immune response which may then offer protection against subsequent infection, or immunity.

“Our aim is to produce potential vaccines and then pass these on to immunologists to test to see if they are able to induce an immune response that can protect against coronavirus infection,” said Dr Parker.

“As scientists, we’re all wondering how we can usefully contribute. Everyone feels the same. Our role is just a small part of the huge effort that is under way to help fight this virus.”

Dr Parker and his team are already back at work in the labs at a University research building at the University Hospital of Wales - but adhering strictly to social distancing.

“Being back in the lab is really weird. It’s so empty and really quite eerie,” said Dr Parker.

“There are four of us on the team who have now been granted ‘essential worker status’ and we’re obviously having to maintain social distancing so are working apart. It’s very strange.

“But thankfully for us we’re in our comfort zone when it comes to our research. Our expertise is in tinkering with viral vectors for therapeutic benefit. We’ve changed tack slightly - from fighting cancer to infectious disease - but we’re still doing what we’re good at and drawing on what we know.

“It’s not a change of direction I could have predicted a month ago but we’re all hoping it is temporary.

“The response from the scientific community has been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The sheer volume of information and resources being shared and the speed of research has been remarkable.

If we can draw any positives in all of this, it would be the way scientists and academic clinicians are coming together, drawing on their strengths and sharing expertise willingly.

Professor Alan Parker Professor of Translational Virotherapies. Head of Section of Solid Cancers, Division of Cancer and Genetics

Professor Stephen Riley, head of the University’s School of Medicine, said: “It’s great to see how the scientific community across the world is rising to the challenge of dealing with the Covid-19 crisis - applying groundbreaking methods, across different domains, to tackle these challenges is the sign of an excellent researcher.”

Cardiff University is already leading on several new research projects and initiatives relating to coronavirus:

  • Scientists are tracking the spread of coronavirus across the UK - and looking at whether different strains are emerging - vital information to help tackle the pandemic
  • Researchers have launched a research project to gauge the UK public’s attitude to the pandemic - the results will help to inform the healthcare response
  • Staff and students at the University are also rallying to help, from donating supplies of vital protective (PPE) equipment to healthcare workers to offering training in essential skills

Iain Foulkes, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of research, said: “We are proud of our scientists, some of the best in the world, who are turning their focus to COVID-19 during this global pandemic. They are providing desperately needed capacity at a time of national crisis.

“As well as Dr Parker and his team, many Cancer Research UK laboratories throughout the country are providing vital testing kit and skills. As a scientific research community, we need to beat the pandemic together – the sooner we do that the sooner our researchers can get back to beating cancer.”

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