‘There’s No Limit’ to the Fight Against Disease

He won a Canada Gairdner International Award for his work in vaccines; now he's seeking new frontiers in healthcare.

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“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 RappuoliChief 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.”

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Rino Rappuoli is a pioneer in the world of vaccines and has introduced several novel scientific concepts. First, he introduced the concept that bacterial toxins can be detoxified by manipulation of their genes (genetic detoxification, 1987). Next, the concept that microbes are better studied in the context of the cells they interact with (cellular microbiology, 1996), and then the use of genomes to develop new vaccines (reverse vaccinology, 2000). In the process of reverse vaccinology the entire genomic sequence of a pathogen is screened using bioinformatics tools to help determine which genes code for which proteins, against which vaccines can be developed. 

Rappuoli also worked on several molecules which became part of licensed vaccines. He characterized a molecule, CRM197, that today is the most widely used carrier for vaccines against Haemophilus influenzae, meningococcus and pneumococcus. Later he developed a vaccine against pertussis containing genetically detoxified pertussis toxin and the first conjugate vaccine against meningococcus C that eliminated the disease in the United Kingdom in 2000. His work on reverse vaccinology led to the licensure of the first meningococcus B vaccine approved in Europe and Canada in 2013 and USA in 2015. 

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