Meet our researcher: Lesley Pearce

By Karen Bruno

16 June 2020

6 minute read

Lesley Pearce stands in a lab wearing protection gear.

From growing up on a small family farm to working in a lab. Senior research scientist Lesley Pearce shares insight into her work on COVID-19.

Lesley Pearce & her husband Jeremy purchased their weekender home in Blackwood in 2016 & have spent many a weekend & holiday here with their two children Ella & Lucy. Lesley works for CSIRO as a senior research scientist & has had many changes to her work as a result of COVID-19.

1. Why did you choose science as a career?

I grew up on a small family farm over at Campbelltown, not far from Blackwood, near Clunes & Newstead. If you stop & think about it, a farm is probably the one of the biggest laboratories out there. The farmer is the scientist & the farm is the laboratory, the real-life experiment is growing your food & the crops for income which are dependent on many variables: insects, fungus, frosts, droughts & hail. Secondly, when I grew up, there were no digital distractions nor even a VCR, just the TV, & you had to watch what was live on TV, whether you liked it or not. I loved watching the science programs like, “Why is it So” with the wacky the Prof. Julius Sumner Miller (Einstein look-alike) & “Curiosity Show” staring Deane Hutton. Those two guys presented science in a fun & engaging way. Thirdly, science is all around us – everything we do involves some aspect of science i.e. “what might happen if”. Science is predicting (hypothesis), planning, doing & analysing the results. WE are all scientists in some shape or form.

2. What do you do in your day-to-day job?

Believe it or not, this year is my 30th year working for CSIRO, in Parkville. During this time, I’ve had many different scientific roles. I started off as a Junior Technical Assistant on a project to develop a vaccine against foot abscess in sheep. This was the early 1990’s & Victoria had experienced a number of wet winters; sheep were dying because they were lame due to foot infections & couldn’t move around to feed. I spent a fair majority of my first year doing fieldwork in Moyston, East of the Grampians & in Holbrook (NSW) on numerous Merino farms. Thinking back to those days, I’d like to think that I was as good as a shearer “flipping a sheep”. A skill like this was necessary so that we could access the space between sheep’s digits, take swabs & isolate the bacteria causing the infection. Back in the lab growing the bacteria caused enormous conflict with other scientists. These bacteria are anaerobic, meaning that you have to grow them in jars without oxygen. When the jar is opened to examine the agar plates where the bacteria are growing, the most incredibly foul smell imaginable is released.

These days, in my current role as a Senior Research Scientist, I am totally laboratory-based (believe it or not I studied Agricultural Science as I didn’t want to work in a laboratory). At our site in Parkville, we have a fermentation team that produces anything from 100 mL to 50 L volumes of a ”specific protein” in laboratory strains of E. coli bacteria or mammalian cells. It is my task along with others to purify these recombinant proteins (usually human proteins that we have the DNA code for that specific gene), antigens, antibodies, tumour growth factors & cellular receptors to be used for diagnostic & therapeutic purposes by companies in Australian biotech industry, academic institutes along with our own in-house research. I have purified recombinant proteins fermented in safe mammalian or bacterial culture systems from vastly different origins, like Ebola Virus, MERS, SARS, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), Hendra Virus, cat allergens, & proteins involved in various growth of various cancers.

A researcher checks on their work in the lab while wearing full protective gear.

3. How did you get an opportunity to work on the COVID-19 vaccine?

CSIRO were already working with UQ (University of Queensland) on their vaccine technology. This project was funded by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), & in January this year, CEPI asked UQ & the team to use the technology to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. UQ have developed a rapid-response vaccine technology called the
molecular clamp. UQ partnered with CSIRO to produce & purify the COVID-19 protein for use at the various stages, of their vaccine pipeline. I, along with a small number of colleagues have moved from our research lab at Parkville to CSIRO’s state-of-the-art biologics production facility in Melbourne’s South East.

We are currently in the process of scaling up production of the COVID-19 vaccine candidate using best-practice manufacturing standards for UQ to continue with the next stage of vaccine development studies, testing & Phase-1 clinical trials. The project is also supported by the Queensland & Federal Governments as well as generous philanthropic donors.

4. How does it feel working on such an important worldwide project?

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a real difference to something that is happening right now. An opportunity that not many scientists will ever get in their career.

I liken it to being a volunteer firefighter with the CFA. In early January this year, practically half of the state was threatened by the horrendous bushfires & the CFA volunteers were fighting fires for weeks! It was at the same time when we first heard news reports about a new respiratory disease in Wuhan, China. Since then scientists from the CSIRO fermentation & purification teams have been working flat-out fighting to make a vaccine against COVID-19. Yes, it has been exciting, challenging, exhausting, frustrating & rewarding. At times, two steps forwards, one step backwards. You are dog tired, but you just keep going, time is crucial. We are just part of a global push, striving to help develop one of the many vaccines being trialled. We won’t stop until we have finished our part of the development process.

5. What are you most proud of in your professional career?

Science is a big investment & no one person or facility can cover all the facets required to get a drug or vaccine to market. I am proud that I have developed the skills to help enable companies in their pipeline to make a new cancer treatment or diagnostic test. I’m a country girl from a small rural school – 18 students in total, a school that no longer exists. I am one who has taken opportunities, made opportunities & is currently striving to help make a difference in this world of COVID-19.

Wish us luck, sometimes in science things don’t always go the way you want. However, I’m proud that I am part of a CSIRO team that has given COVID-19 vaccine development its best shot.

The article first appeared in The Blackwood Times, June/July edition.