Professor Helen McShane is VALIDATE’s Network Director and Professor of Vaccinology at the Jenner Institute, University of Oxford, UK. In Helen’s VALID8 interview, she talks about working with patients, leadership and leading the first MVA85A efficacy trial in 3,000 babies.
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1 - What do you do?
I do lots of things and have many leadership roles. But one of my most important roles is to lead a research group which focusses on developing an effective vaccine against tuberculosis.
2 - What do you tell non-scientists you do?
I am a medical doctor by training. I still see patients a little, but most of the time I lead a research group developing tuberculosis vaccines.
3 - What has been your greatest success to date?
To have successfully led a large consortium of academics, funders and industrial partners in the first efficacy trial with a new TB vaccine in ~3000 South African babies. The trial showed the vaccine was safe but it unfortunately was not better than BCG alone. We published the results 10 working days after we first saw the data, and we have since published more than 10 additional papers with novel scientific insights gleaned from this well conducted clinical trial.
4 - What, for you, is the most exciting thing that could emerge from your team’s vaccine research?
That we could contribute, in some way, to the development of an effective TB vaccine. At the moment we are looking at whether delivering a vaccine by inhaler, into the lungs, is a better way of giving a vaccine than giving it into the arm. And also whether we can deliberately infect people with a safe strain of TB, to use as a model to test vaccines before moving to large expensive phase III efficacy trials.
5 - What is the most interesting thing you have learned in your job?
To be flexible. Things change, priorities change, people change. And sometimes when you get closer to things, you have a different perspective. It is important to be able to change your mind, and admit it.
6 - What is the best part of your job?
This is hard as there are so many aspects of my job I love. I love still seeing patients occasionally. I love leading a research group and seeing new data and helping to mentor and inspire the next generation. I increasingly enjoy the leadership roles I have taken on, both within and outside the University. And I love the teams I work with – both with my group and with my external collaborators throughout the world.
7 - What is the most challenging part of your job or research?
There are times where managing workload (and email!) becomes very tricky. And the politics can take up more time than the science sometimes which is frustrating. But I have a wonderful team around me and really enjoy interacting with different people and trying to make things happen.
8 - Why are vaccines important?
TB kills more people than any other infectious disease. Every year, 1.5 million people die from TB. Treatment takes at least 6 months with several drugs, some of which can have severe side effects. The most cost effective way to control any infectious disease is with an effective vaccine. TB attracts a fraction of the research funding that HIV or COVID-19 does, yet kills more people. We urgently need more R&D into tools to help manage the TB pandemic – new drugs, better diagnostic tests, but ultimately what we need is a really good vaccine.