An interview with Professor Nicola Stonehouse

January 2020

Nicola Stonehouse is Professor in Molecular Virology at the University of Leeds and a member of the Microbiology Society. In this interview she tells us more about her area of research, how vaccination has had an enormous impact on human and animal health, and how her lab has adopted a new strategy to produce candidate vaccines.

Why are vaccines important to microbiology?

Professor Nicola Stonehouse
© Nicola Stonehouse

Vaccination is one of the most important and effective medical interventions and has had an enormous impact on human and animal health. However, there are still many examples of diseases for which we do not have effective vaccines. Furthermore, much of the world’s current vaccine production involves the production of disease-causing agents which are subsequently inactivated during the production process. 

Tell us more about your area of research.

I’m a virologist and one of my group's research areas is the production of novel viral virus-like particles (VLPs) as potential candidate vaccines. As the viral capsid is inert in terms of causing disease (but elicits the major immune response against the virus); production of just the capsid as a VLP should elicit a protective immune response, yet be totally safe. Furthermore, such production could be undertaken under lower containment, which is easier and cheaper, thus making such virus-like particle vaccines more accessible to low- and middle-income countries.

Tell us more about your current role.

Poliovirus produces empty particles as part of the natural lifecycle. However, these are very unstable and readily undergo an antigenic conversion to a non-native state and are therefore not useful as a vaccine. We are part of a Leeds-led consortium funded by the World Health Organization (also involving the Universities of Oxford, Reading and Florida, the John Innes Centre, The Pirbright Institute and the National Institute of Biological Standards and Control).

Over the past eight years, we have generated VLPs of poliovirus that are now being expressed in recombinant systems as candidate vaccines. By selecting viruses at elevated temperatures, and by identifying reversion of temperature-sensitive mutants, we have identified a number of residues in the capsid which render this stable, even when empty. Our poliovirus VLPs made in the yeast (Pichia pastoris) have similar antigenicity and immunogenicity to the current vaccine and optimising of purification protocols and scale-up are in progress. We are now applying our strategy to other viruses, focusing on the causative agents of hand, foot and mouth disease (EVA71 and CVA16), funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC).

Why does microbiology matter?

Microbes are everywhere and affect almost all aspects of our lives. Harnessing the power of microbiology can therefore bring health, environmental, social, cultural, industrial and economic benefits to our society.

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