Interview with a Researcher: Professor Teresa Lambe OBE, co-developer of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

Image Credit: Professor Teresa Lambe

Jana Joha sits down with Professor Teresa Lambe OBE, the co-developer of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and UCD graduate, to discuss and learn more about the story behind the Covid-19 vaccine

Teresa Lambe OBE is a professor of vaccinology and immunology at The Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford. Prof Lambe is the co-developer of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. She is this year's recipient of the George Sigerson Award presented by the Biological Society at UCD on the 24th of March 2022. During the award ceremony Prof Lambe gave a presentation on the journey of how she and her team, alongside collaborators, developed the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. In an interview with The University Observer, Prof Lambe provided insight into her own research at Oxford and how the technology she and her team have developed over the past decade inevitably led to the creation of a vaccine that has saved millions of lives around the world. 

Prof Lambe originally completed her BSc at UCD. She is a graduate of the School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science, completing a joint honours degree in Pharmacology and Genetics in 1997, before going on to complete her PhD research in 2002. Prof Lambe noted how she “loved the diversity” of the joint honours degree and that she's “been lucky enough to be able to follow what I love doing”. Prof Lambe further explained that “after my PhD, I wanted to go abroad” and that during her PhD she “started to get interested in immunology”, an area involving the study of the immune system, “but there wasn’t much immunology in what I was doing”. However, at the time “there was a really good opportunity to work with Professor Richard Cornall and Professor Sir John Bell” in the University of Oxford and Prof Lambe noted that in UCD “we were always very good at using new technologies and trying to embrace the new” and so she decided to transition into “immunology with technology”. She first started working with “Richard Cornall and John Bell in autoimmunity” and “did an awful lot of what’s considered basic science” which involves trying to understand “the underpinning mechanisms driving disease”. 

Prof Lambe likens the adenovirus to the ‘Trojan Horse’, acting as a vehicle that carries the code for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

However, Prof Lambe explained that even though she really enjoyed working on autoimmunity, she wanted to move towards doing more translational research; “I am a little bit impatient, I like to see impact… so while it was hugely enjoyable, and I really enjoyed the fundamental understanding of biological processes, I wasn’t seeing a direct translation quickly enough”. This was what inspired Prof Lambe to transition into vaccine research. “There’s a real-world impact with vaccines… and a position became available to work in vaccines… so I moved over into vaccinology and vaccine development about 13-14 years ago”. Prof Lambe described it as “basically I just really love figuring out how things work and then being able to see an impact of what you’ve figured out”. Getting to do research that not only expands the boundaries of knowledge but can also benefit people and have a real impact is “like the cherry on top”. Ever since then Prof Lambe has enjoyed her time at Oxford. She considers “Ireland and Oxford home” and noted that “Oxford is unlike any other city I’ve been in… because of the research community, it’s quite diverse… and it’s almost like a little pocket in England where you get to meet all sorts of people”. 

During her time at Oxford, Prof Lambe and her team, focused on developing vaccines for various different pathogens. Over many years, they've developed “a platform technology” working with Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, that involves the use of adenoviruses. Adenoviruses are a group of viruses that can infect humans as well as other animals, including chimpanzees. These adenoviruses can be weakened and edited in such a way that makes them no longer harmful for humans. Prof Lambe and her team use carefully selected and edited chimpanzee-derived adenoviruses to develop vaccines. This is achieved by inserting the genetic information that codes for a specific target on another disease or pathogen into the adenovirus. When this modified adenovirus is injected into the human body the small coding information will result in proteins being produced that our body can recognise and mount an immune response against. Speaking at the award ceremony, Prof Lambe explained that they already “had a platform technology and used it repeatedly for vaccines.” In order to develop a new vaccine they “first need to find the target from the pathogen of interest to include” in the adenovirus. In the case of SARS-CoV-2 they “take the genetic sequence [of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein], the ‘recipe’ and put it into their adenovirus technology”. Prof Lambe likens the adenovirus to the ‘Trojan Horse’, acting as a vehicle that carries the code for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Once the spike protein is produced inside our bodies our immune system can then recognise this foreign substance and mount an immune response. 

“People wanted to help, people wanted to do whatever they could to try and get us out of this horrid situation in 2020”

Prof Lambe recalled the time she and her team first started designing the vaccine; “the information I needed to design the vaccine arrived Sat morning (11th Jan 2020)... by Monday, Jan 13th we were ready to order the recipe for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein”. Prof Lambe noted during her talk that the last two years were a difficult time for everyone, including her team. “At the beginning, to say the team was small was an understatement”. The team started small and “nine days after the first preclinical study we had evidence to show that the vaccine was immunogenic (able to elicit an immune response)”. However, they still didn’t know if the vaccine would be effective, and so began the first phases of clinical trials; “did we know that it would be effective? No, we couldn’t. That’s what you need clinical trials for”.

During her presentation, Prof Lambe revealed that a question she gets asked frequently is “how were they able to develop the vaccine so quickly?” and she explained that it was because instead of progressing through each phase of vaccine design, preclinical studies and clinical trials sequentially, one after another, they instead were able to run them almost simultaneously. She also explained that other factors played crucial roles in allowing them to develop the vaccine so quickly. When asked during the interview “what was the most important factor(s)?”, Prof Lambe replied that “probably the most important was willingness”. “When you're researching there tends to be little silos and people are very expert at one particular part of whatever they’re researching, be it a particular disease etc.” but when Prof Lambe and the international team started to develop and test the vaccine “all of those walls, all of those silos came down”. “People wanted to help, people wanted to do whatever they could to try and get us out of this horrid situation in 2020”. Prof Lambe further explained that “the second thing is the fact that we had invested our time and research in a platform technology” which “was built on years and years of basic research, of not getting grants, of trying to scrimp and save so that you could do this type of work”. 

During the interview, Prof Lambe remarked that “there wasn't really a call to arms” that instead “there was a slow realisation that we really needed to go and go fast”. She and her team as well as all collaborators around the world worked tirelessly to ensure that this vaccine would be developed. Prof Lambe noted that she and many others “went without seeing family, without sleeping” and “were well-working past after midnight” to ensure the success of this vaccine. Despite not being able to see family, Prof Lambe explained that “you didn’t think about that, you got up, you started work” and focused on the task at hand. “You kept going, you didn’t pay attention to most of what was going on because you knew that you had to get the tasks done and the vaccine progressed”. She stated that “it’s hard to describe… pandemic experiences are unique to different kinds of people… and for the type of work we were doing, you just got up, you came in, you went home, you got up, you came in, you went home”. The stakes and the potential impact of the vaccine were what kept Prof Lambe and her team going during the most difficult parts of 2020 and 2021. “Days blended into weekends, weekends blended into days… and you were almost obsessive in working because you knew that it could matter and you could not drop the ball because it would have a very real impact”.

“people didn't want to think that this could happen to them” and that “it really shouldn't have been ‘what if?’, the thinking should’ve been ‘when this happens’ instead.”

In addition to the challenges they had to face, they were confronted with the spread of fake news about the vaccine. During her talk, Prof Lambe mentioned that they were “constantly battling fake news, false news” and as a consequence, it “has created an uncertainty about the vaccine that has led to lower uptake of vaccine” in many countries. Prof Lambe highlighted that “one of the driving forces [to develop the vaccine] was to make the vaccine affordable” for everyone around the globe. However, despite that, “one of the main reasons [for vaccine inequity] is that they were rolled out in high-income countries” first. When asked what we can do to combat the spread of fake news on vaccines, Prof Lambe explained that “it really depends on whether you’re dealing with vaccine hesitancy, vaccine reluctance or anti-vax”. “For vaccine hesitance and reluctance, it's generally people who have questions, or are a little scared, are a little uncertain and actually it’s conversations with people that help with those''. She further emphasised that “you need to listen and listen carefully because whatever way we have communicated so far is not helping. So you need to listen to their concerns, because they are valid concerns, and you need not communicate with facts and figures but maybe just let them explain what they’re worried about and then respond in a compassionate and caring way”. Prof Lambe remarked; “I don't think we realised how important it was that we needed to communicate with the public… and personally I think there should be more training so we can get it right”. 

The pandemic unveiled the impact of fake news and false information on vaccine hesitancy. Concerns surrounding vaccination were not limited to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the sentiment ricocheted every covid vaccine. However, the truth is that vaccines “were keeping people out of the hospital and preventing death” and without them, there would be no end in sight to this horrific pandemic. The research done by scientists around the world, including Prof Lambe and her team, is crucial in ensuring that we are better prepared for the next inevitable pandemic. Prof Lambe during the interview remarked that “people didn't want to think that this could happen to them” and that “it really shouldn't have been ‘what if?’, the thinking should’ve been ‘when this happens’ instead.” Therefore, Prof Lambe believes that “we need to continue investing” in vaccine research and development. 

As a final note during the interview, Prof Lambe emphasised that UCD was a “big part of my education and my career and that without UCD I wouldn"t have been able to do what I did… the people I’ve met, and the expansion of your mindset that started within UCD, helped me hugely in my career”. Prof Lambe is certainly an inspiration for many young aspiring scientists, not only in Ireland or the UK but globally too. “It's really important for anybody coming from a small place, to know that you can do what you want, the world is your oyster, go out there and get it, give it a chance. And if you make a mistake, that's okay”.