Meet our COVID-19 researcher: Tram Phan

By Kashmi Ranasinghe

30 April 2020

4 minute read

Woman standing against a machine smiling at the camera.

Tram Phan is one of our vaccine researchers. Her team is developing the proteins for The University of Queensland’s vaccine candidate. This candidate recently found success in its pre-clinical testing.

You may have heard about the work we’re doing in the current COVID-19 pandemic. Our scientists are part of the global effort to fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus. For example, Our work includes undertaking pre-clinical trials and producing proteins for use in vaccines. We spoke with one of our vaccine researchers, Tram Phan.

Tram is a senior experimental scientist working at our advanced biologics production facility. Tram and her team are working on vaccine development. They’re making the vaccine proteins used to test The University of Queensland’s (UQ) COVID-19 vaccine candidate. UQ’s vaccine candidate has triggered high levels of neutralising antibodies in its pre-clinical testing. In other words, it allowed a mouse’s immune system to develop a protective response and kill the virus.

Tram tells us what she’s up to and how she got to where she is.

What work do you usually do?

I’m part of the team that produces a variety of proteins in a lab for many biomedical applications. I reprogram the cells to produce proteins of interest. Once we produce the proteins, we isolate them for the required uses. For example, they may be useful for a vaccine.

These proteins go through a series of tests to ensure they are safe. If safe, they can be approved for use by authorities such as Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration. I’ve been our Quality Assurance Manager for the last 10 years. So, it’s my role to ensure our processes and products meet stringent Australian standards.

How does your work relate to COVID-19?

For the COVID-19 vaccine, we’re making proteins found on the surface of the virus. These proteins aim to mimic the presence of the virus inside the body. This will then trigger a protective response from the body against the virus, known as antibodies.

These proteins are being used in UQ’s vaccine candidate. In January this year, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) asked UQ and its partners to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. This is done using UQ’s rapid response vaccine technology called the molecular clamp.

This technology could shave the time needed to create a COVID-19 vaccine from years to months!

UQ’s vaccine candidate is a specially designed protein. We’re excited to be working with UQ to produce the protein for use at the various stages, from small to large-scale production. We’re now working to increase production to 50 litres. This is for the planned Phase I clinical trial later this year. It takes highly specialist skills and know-how every time you scale production of a vaccine and its proteins to a greater quantity.

How will it help with the current pandemic?

We hope this work leads to an effective vaccine against COVID-19. The shape of the proteins in UQ’s vaccine candidate allow the immune system to recognise and neutralise SARS-CoV-2. Our work with UQ could cut vaccine development time by six months. And, importantly, without taking shortcuts on safety.

Two vaccine researchers in PPE gear at a machine looking at some results.

Professor George Lovrecz and Mylinh La at our advanced biologics production facility preparing to work on UQ’s vaccine candidate. Image: Scott McNaughton

How will this research help in future pandemics?

The development of biologics, or pharmaceutical drugs made from living things, has grown in Australia. Our role is to help companies working on biologics to take their research into the clinic. It’s always heartening to see government, industry, philanthropic and research organisations come together for science. That’s never been more evident than in these recent times of crisis. Research teams across the world have come together in the fight against COVID-19.

Did you always want to be a scientist? How did you get here?

I’ve always had a strong interest in the biological sciences through high school. It was a natural next step for me. I joined CSIRO straight out of university. Back then, our team made large amounts of high-quality biomolecules. Researchers and small businesses used them to support their research and development programs.

Do you have any advice for people considering a STEM career?

I strongly believe that a STEM career can open many doors. The best advice I can give is this: know that whatever you decide now is not set in stone. My experience is that a career in STEM can be both rewarding and challenging. I am also quite lucky CSIRO has provided me with both job security and the opportunity to take on many different roles in my career.

Thanks Tram and all our vaccine researchers. Good luck to you and your team!