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.
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!
8th May 2020 at 10:11 pm
This virus is a Bat + human/pig cross pollination , therefore it will come back every year just like the flu and along side it and so therefore it follows we need a superfast vaccine manufacturing capability to meet each years latest pandemic strain ! i have invented the best manufacturing means to make a hyperfast vaccine supply for the whole world to beat the virus covid-19 SARS Mk 2 , have your researchers check out my posts on and comment on it :
The first three diagrams are related to the new novel hyperfast vaccine manufacturing method i call nano blades or ADADADA process , the others are related to the string energy structure of space i also worked out .
My manufacturing method will supply hi fi harmless antigens that will be more noticable as foreign bodies , so priming the immune system response much more quickly and so building a army of antibody manufacturing much more quickly and surely . Are your researchers interested in switching to my better method for the Best covid vaccine ?
it is personal to me because i am at war with the pathgenic virus kingdom as a echo adenovirus attacked my heart last year , so i am turning some of my intellect on these evil entities , to annilitate them .
Barkly Science Club
1st May 2020 at 8:26 pm
Clearly, in my humble opinion this needs consideration. It also appears a good lever to maintain funding.
1st May 2020 at 2:47 am
30th April 2020 at 6:18 pm
Hi, I’m part of an international group working on a campaign called “freethevaccine” (https://freethevaccine.org/). Its intent is to ask all those involved in research for a COVID-19 vaccine (many using public funds) to ensure that once developed, the vaccines are available to the public and accessible. We are also trying to get these organisations involved in this research to sign the COVID pledge https://opencovidpledge.org/
What is CSIRO’s policy in relation to access to the vaccine and would CSIRO be willing to sign the pledge?
30th April 2020 at 4:06 pm
The virus causing the current pandemic (Covid – 19) is often referred to as the SARS-CoV-2 virus. I remember MERS and SARS causing similar symptoms. Presumably, these are all corona viruses similar to the virus which causes the flu. I understand all viruses mutate. the question I have:- ” Is this virus through natural selection becoming better at what it does? That is becoming hardier so that it survives longer and hence can readily infect more people. Will Covid – 20 perhaps 21 cause even more strife?
1st May 2020 at 9:08 am
Hi Keith, thanks for your question. It’s not something our researchers can answer at this stage. Any key developments we will share via our social media channels.