Pharming tobacco to tackle HIV – careers in biology

Julian Ma is Professor of Molecular Immunology at St George’s Hospital Medical School. In this interview, he talks to us about his job and his career in plant science so far.

Can you tell me your job title and a bit about your job?

I’m Professor of Molecular Immunology at St George’s Hospital Medical School. At the medical school, all our research is aimed at certain aspects of infections, how we respond to infections and how we might protect against infections. My lab is particularly looking at how we can make vaccines against diseases like HIV and especially those diseases that mainly harm the poor in developing countries. We are addressing a specific problem. We have to make medicines very cheaply and in very large quantities. We don’t believe the current technologies are appropriate for that, and so we started many years ago thinking about using genetically modified plants as a manufacturing platform for new medicines. At the moment, I’m growing antibodies in plants to help prevent HIV. I’ve made a video about my work so you can find out more.

What’s wrong with the current technologies?

They’re excellent, but they’re very expensive. The way we make medicines like insulin or herceptin relies on genetically modifying bacteria or other cells, and growing those up in large fermentation vats under very sterile conditions. The stainless steel involved in that is horribly expensive, and limits how much medicine you can make. So while that technology is excellent for us in the West, historically we’ve never been able to make enough medicines to satisfy a global demand, and that’s what we need in order to tackle something like HIV or tuberculosis.

How does your research try to overcome that?

Plants are very easy and cheap to grow, and they’re also very low technology. So if you can design a plant to make a medicine, you can scale up by standard propagation techniques. Thengrowing them at agricultural scale is something that could easily be done, perhaps in a developing country. The plant biomass is your crude material. All you have to do is to process that, to extract the medicine, in much the same way that we do now for our conventional medicines.

”I think there is room for many different kinds of people. You have to have creative people, but you also have to have people who are meticulous and well organised.”

So could you just eat a banana and get your HIV treatment?

That was one of the very early ideas, and everyone got very excited about the possibility of having a banana plant in an African village, and the children plucking a banana and getting their HIV vaccine. The reason why that would never work is that you could never control the quality of the vaccine or the amount the children took. But the idea isn’t totally preposterous. All it needs is one step in between the banana and the consumption to control the dose and ensure that it is uniform. So, you could process the fruit into something like a powder or a puree, that could be stabilised and standardised ready for dosing. That type of technology is very cheap, because that’s what they do in the food industry.

How did you first get interested in this research?

It’s a long story. I first went to University to study dentistry, and I was all ready to become a dentist, when an Immunology Professor offered me a job to do a PhD in his Department, to develop a vaccine against tooth decay. It was a wonderful project, and at the end, we had something we could use as a vaccine, but I had no idea how we could make enough to treat all the children who might need it. That year, the first scientific research paper was published describing the production of antibodies in transgenic plants. I saw that paper, and I thought ‘wow’. I went over to the USA to work in that lab for two years, and I had to learn about plant science very quickly. I brought the technology back to the UK and I continued working in plants, to grow my vaccine in plants. It was a great success, and we got a product out into clinical trials. But a few years down the line, I realised that dental caries were not the be all and end all, and that I had a way of addressing some of these important diseases like HIV and tuberculosis.

So, having started in dentistry, I moved into biochemistry, moved again into plant science and now I apply my plant science knowledge to medicine.

What other routes do people take to get into your sort of role?

If you look around my lab, you’ll see people who have taken many different career routes. Some are like me, clinicians with an interest in research. Others have done basic degrees in science at university. Some of my team studied plant biology and saw the huge potential of plants in medicine, and they regard what we do as translational plant biology. We also have immunologists in our group, and we have molecular biologists, who could work with plant or mammalian cells, but find that working with plants is really fun.

Can you tell me about a typical day in your life?

A day in the life of a Professor isn’t as much fun as a day in the life of a PhD student! Three years ago, I would have said that a typical day in my life involved going into the lab, starting up some experiments, coming into the office, talking to the people I work with about their projects, maybe working on some applications for funding, and then going back and finishing my experiments. It’s not a 9 to 5 job. There were times I’d come in late and work through to midnight, and other times I’d work through the weekend, and other times I’d just have a two hour day.

Now, I have more administrative duties associated with organising research at St. George’s in general. I still spend a lot of my time talking to PhD students and post-doc scientists in my lab about their projects. I do spend a lot of time trying to raise funding for the Department, and of course that’s important. All of my research team are on quite short-term contracts, so it’s important to keep the money flowing in so I can continue to employ them. I teach, and I also go out to talk to school students about science and research. I’m involved in 3 large European scientific consortia, and a lot of my time is spent trying to direct the work we’re trying to do, and collaborating with my international colleagues, which is one of the best things about my job.

Is science quite a solitary job?

No. Most of the time I’ll be talking to someone about the research they’ve done, and planning for the next two weeks, and that’s pretty fun. We do spend quite a lot of time in the coffee room together, and that’s an opportunity for more general discussions about work and life. That’s where many of our best ideas are formed.

What sort of person makes a good scientist?

I think there is room for many different kinds of people. You have to have creative people, but you also have to have people who are meticulous and well organised. I was interviewing for some new positions yesterday, and for our specific project, we knew we wanted someone who could work by themselves, and think up new ideas, and be creative. But that’s not always the case. Probably I’d want to pair that person up with someone who’s more meticulous and down to earth, to make sure the project gets done.

What’s the best bit about your job?

The best bit is the fact that I can think of an idea and go away,work on it, and show whether the idea’s a good one or not. It’s the freedom for me to act on the ideas I’m having by myself. Of course, at some stage I’ll have to find funding, but at the early stages I’ll think about something, do the experiment, and see if it works. If it does work, then I have to write a proposal to a funding organisation that will persuade them my idea is worth investing in. And finally, when you’re reporting your results, that’s a great part of the work, because it’s the culmination. You had the idea, you got the funding, and here’s the result. Everything is down to you, all the way through.

”Research is not always about Eureka moments.”

What’s the worst bit?

Research is not always about Eureka moments. Much of our work is quite repetitive and also frustrating. You may get an experiment to work first time, but to get it to work again and again to show it’s consistent and scientifically sound, can be very frustrating. And the worst thing is when you can’t persuade other people your ideas are good.

Has anything ever happened that’s particularly funny or unexpected?

A few years ago we were preparing an educational stand for Chelsea Flower Show, showing how plants are used to make medicines. We knew our stand would be seen by thousands of people, including the Queen, and probably appear on TV, so we wanted to do a good job. We decided early on that we needed tomato plants with ripe tomatoes, but you don’t normally get ripe tomatoes in May. One of the rules in Chelsea is you’re not allowed to sellotape or glue anything onto your plants, so we couldn’t glue shop-bought tomatoes on our plants! So someone put me in touch with an expert tomato grower, Terry Marshall in Yorkshire who grows fresh tomatoes in his greenhouse every day of the year. He was very kind and agreed to let us have three of his precious tomato plants. They arrived six weeks before the show for us to grow on in our greenhouse, and we were petrified that they would die, because none of us were really that good gardeners. Terry was very helpful and gave us loads of advice, and over a very stressful few weeks, we managed to keep the plants alive and they all developed a load of ripe tomatoes in time for the Show. When the time came to take them to Chelsea, we wrapped them really carefully in bubble wrap and took them down to the car park. We had just put them down to open the car door when a gust of wind hit them, and all three plants went smack on the ground, and almost in slow motion, we watched all these tomatoes roll out and roll across the car park. We’d lost two thirds of the crop. And the worst thing was that Terry came down to the flower show specially to see his tomatoes. That was a difficult moment. It was hard to smile at the time, but we laugh now.

Find out more

Find out more about Julian’s work with an article in the Guardian.