“Just a century ago, life expectancy for people was less than 50 years. Today, we live 85 years, and probably we’ll live longer in the future. And one of the main reasons is because we conquered infectious diseases that used to kill newborns, children, and young adults.
“I cannot think of any other medical intervention or any other invention that mankind has made during the last two centuries that has had an impact on our lives the way vaccines did.”
Vaccine scientist Rino Rappuoli, Chief Scientist with GlaxoSmithKline Vaccines, has made immunity against infectious diseases his life’s work. From Haemophilus influenzae to meningococcus and pneumococcus, Rappuoli was a pioneer on the science behind several life-saving vaccines, earning him a 2017 Canada Gairdner International Award.
Rappuoli developed a technique for discovering vaccine targets called reverse vaccinology. His method was the first to use gene sequencing data to pinpoint proteins on the surface of disease-causing pathogens, such as bacteria or viruses, without needing to study the pathogens themselves.
He used this method to search for a vaccine target for meningococcus B, a subtype of bacteria responsible for half of all meningitis cases, and for which no vaccine was yet available. Starting with the complete genome, he identified over 90 potential surface-exposed targets; the previous 50 years of work had only uncovered about a dozen.
The resulting vaccine, Bexsero, was approved for use in 2014.
The incredible pace of technology means that new things are becoming possible all the time. That continued innovation means that it’s impossible to imagine what will be on the horizon next. But Rappuoli believes that with many childhood infectious diseases now under control, our focus will shift to conquering new areas in healthcare.
“We can think about curing diseases, preventing cancer, curing genetic diseases like Alzheimer’s and other things,” says Rappuoli. “I think there’s no limit.”