The Ebola virus is one of the most dangerous and untreatable pathogens. IMAGE: Frederick Murphy/CDC
Riccardo Cortese, former head of the Genome Biology Unit, talks about the Ebola vaccine candidate developed by his start-up, and reflects on his successful career in research and industry.
The Ebola vaccine – currently being tested – is based on your work with Okairos, what is special about it?
Traditional vaccines ‘train’ the B lymphocytes into recognising deactivated parts of the pathogen, so they can destroy it more effectively should the body be infected. Unfortunately, this does not always ensure effective protection. I founded the start-up Okairos in 2007 to develop new genetic vaccines, which trigger both T- and B-lymphocyte activation. We started working on the Ebola virus well before the last outbreak in West Africa because it was one of the most dangerous and untreatable pathogens: succeeding with it would be a fantastic proof of concept for our technology.
Unlike the human adenoviruses which are rapidly inactivated by our immune system – we have all been exposed to adenoviral infection –, those of chimpanzees are not recognised by our immune system and trigger a strong response, both from the T- and the B-lymphocytes. We therefore used chimpanzees’ adenoviruses as a ‘Trojan horses’ in which we inserted Ebola-specific proteins. We proved the efficacy of our T-cell based vaccines in these animal models, and sold Okairos to GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) so it could be further developed. Now our Ebola vaccine is in a phase III clinical trial involving 30 000 individuals.
What made you move from academia to the private sector?
I sailed from academia to industry and then biotech: each move driven by restlessness, curiosity and a lot of optimism. I’ve always felt curious about my research topics, obviously, but also about how I could apply them, maybe a consequence of my medical training… All of these steps were a jump into the dark.
After EMBL, I directed the Integrated Research Biotech Model (IRBM) in Rome where we developed several drugs that are now on the market. This was a great job, so leaving it to start something new like Okairos was risky, but also extremely exciting. In ancient Greek, Okairos stands for “right timing” and I felt that it was the right time for me to do it. Now, I am again in a position to start a new company, this time dedicated to new level vectors to provide a cure for diseases such as cancer.
You’ve had a very diverse and fulfilling career, what advice would you give young EMBLers?
In 1981 I founded the Gene Expression Programme (now the Genome Biology Unit) at EMBL, so I was able to develop managerial skills in addition to my scientific expertise. This combination proved very successful during my career. EMBL in general has a very strong reputation – which goes far in industry – and offers many opportunities to its scientists and students. I would advise all EMBLers to make the most of this while working in such an inspiring and invigorating environment.
What is your fondest memory of your time at EMBL?
I fitted well into the EMBL culture as a convert and proponent of the “European mission”, so it was an interesting and intense time for me. I attracted a lot of Italians: we were all in the same corridor, which apparently had the permanent aroma of espresso. The team spirit was very strong: we even trained together at my home to win the prestigious EMBL beer competition against the British and the Germans!