An interview with Dr Karen Buttigieg

January 2020

Karen Buttigieg is a Senior Project Team Leader at Public Health England and a member of the Microbiology Society. In this interview, she tells us about her own views on testing new vaccines, why she thinks prevention is better than cure and why microbiology matters.

Dr Karen Buttigieg
© Karen Buttigieg

Tell us more about your research

I work on the research and development of vaccines against emerging diseases using recombinant virus vectors. This technology harnesses harmless viruses and reprograms them to protect people against other diseases.

I’ve worked on almost all stages of vaccine development: designing vaccines at the DNA level, making them on an experimental small scale, and testing to see if they prevent disease in animal models. I’m now working on a project taking effective vaccines for larger scale manufacture ready for Phase I clinical trials.

This will be the first time these new vaccines are tested in humans, so there are very strict regulations to follow and everything has to be very carefully controlled and monitored. If the initial trials confirm the vaccines are safe in healthy volunteers, then we can move on to the next phase.

Why does this research matter?

Microbes don’t stop evolving, hence they are constantly emerging, partly due to human impact on the world. Increases in global population and urbanisation; conflicts, population movements and climate change; all contribute to changes in the types and frequency of human-animal interactions. Pandemics are likely to be caused by a virus, and new diseases usually initially enter the human population from the animal kingdom. Once adapted to transmission between humans, a new disease can then spread rapidly as the new human hosts won’t have any pre-existing natural immunity.

Prevention is better than cure, so by being on the lookout for these new threats to public health, and developing vaccines to them, we can be ready with medical interventions to save lives.

Why does microbiology matter?

Sadly, there is a lot of inequality in the world. I believe the best way out of poverty is through education, but children need good health in order to attend school. I think microbiology matters because it can make a difference to people’s health—their education and ultimately their wellbeing, wealth and quality of life – particularly in the area of neglected diseases and the developing world.

Once people are no longer living hand-to-mouth, they can live more fulfilling, creative lives and help develop society.

Find out more about Karen Buttigieg in our Microbiology Today interview where she discusses her area of specialism – viruses.

If you are a member of the Society and would like to find out more about how you can get involved with Society activities and/or showcase your research, please email us at [email protected].