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Researcher Spotlight: Professor Helen McShane

22 Sep, 2014

DSC_6454Professor Helen McShane is a Professor of Vaccinology and Wellcome Trust Senior Clinical Fellow at Oxford University, where she leads a programme of research to develop a new vaccine for Tuberculosis (TB).  Here she gives an insight into the international nature of TB research and her motivations for starting, and continuing, research in this field.

What are you working on?

Tuberculosis vaccine development and tuberculosis immunology.

What does your average day involve?

There’s no such thing as an average day! And that’s partly why I enjoy it so much.

All my days involve an early start, and often the only time I can get to my email is either first thing in the morning, before my children wake up, or late at night after they’ve gone to bed. Although as they get older the window between them going to bed and me going to bed is shrinking!

I spend a lot of time on the telephone. We are currently conducting clinical trials in South Africa, Senegal and Uganda, and collaborating with two industrial partners on clinical trials in the UK. We have regular teleconferences on each trial to keep in touch and trouble-shoot any issues in real time. I also spend a lot of time interacting with my collaborators and partners in the US including the Gates and Aeras Foundations. Managing the time zones and fitting things around everyone’s schedules can be challenging!

I meet with my PhD students and post-docs to go through their data, and discuss next steps. Once a week I do an HIV clinic, which I love. It keeps my feet on the ground! In an HIV clinic you can see life at its rawest – but it’s also a great example of evidence-based medicine. I’m usually writing at least one grant application at any one time, and two or three manuscripts which someone in my group or a collaborator has written that need reviewing.

At least once a month I’ll travel somewhere – either for an international conference (where I am often asked to speak) or a field visit to one of the African centres. I try to keep the trips short and the travelling to a minimum because of my children, but I love visiting the field sites in Africa. I am fortunate to collaborate with some amazing people, and visiting the sites in Africa, where TB (and HIV/AIDS) is such a problem, reminds you why it is all worthwhile and what it is we are working for.

Why is your work important?

TB remains a very significant cause of disease and death throughout the world – in 2012 there were 8.6 million new cases and 1.3 million deaths. Co-infection with HIV (which makes people more susceptible to TB) and the emergence of drug resistance have made the problem worse. We urgently need better tools with which to control this epidemic and vaccination is the most cost-effective way to control any infectious disease.

In my group in Oxford, we developed the first new TB vaccine to enter into clinical testing, and the first vaccine to enter into efficacy testing. We’re currently testing an aerosol version of the vaccine, to induce immunity in the lungs, which is where TB enters the body.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

I hope to contribute to the development and licensure of an effective TB vaccine.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

As a junior doctor I worked in Brighton at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in this country and I became interested in HIV, and infectious diseases. At that time we had no drugs to treat HIV, and all of my patients were dying. From there I moved to Oxford and then London, to gain more experience in HIV and infectious diseases.

It was in London, when I was learning to do bronchoscopies on patients, that I became interested in TB and decided I wanted to do some basic research in this area. I came to talk to Adrian Hill in Oxford, who at the time was starting a big programme of research in malaria vaccine development, and persuaded him to let me start working on TB vaccine development in parallel.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

Wellcome funding has been instrumental to my career development. After receiving an MRC Clinical Training Fellowship to fund my PhD, I was lucky enough to secure a Wellcome Clinician Scientist Fellowship. This allowed me to complete my clinical training, continue my research programme, and have a day off a week to look after my two children. I was then awarded a Wellcome Senior Fellowship, which I have since renewed.

In addition to that personal programme support, the Technology Transfer division of Wellcome has also been very supportive, and I have received a Technology Transfer grant and a Strategic Grant from the Trust to fund the overseas vaccine programme in South Africa.

Throughout my now 13 years as a Wellcome fellow, the Trust has been enormously supportive, flexible and approachable. I have felt very lucky to have its support.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

Why is developing a TB vaccine so difficult?

Which question about your work do you most dread?

Anything to do with badgers!

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I love wild swimming, and swimming in the sea, regardless of the temperature!

What keeps you awake at night?

How I can continue to raise funding to keep the wonderful team of post-docs, RAs, clinicians, nurses and project managers I am lucky enough to have working with me in my group.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Ironically, it may be the advice of my maths teacher, in a South London comprehensive, who was of the view that I should be a housewife! I was stubborn and contrary enough to use this as the final incentive I needed to work hard and get to Medical School.

The “chain-reaction” question set by our previous spotlit researcher Prof Mike Barrett is this: If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?

If I weren’t a scientist, I’d be a doctor! But to be able to do both is wonderful.

You can find out more about Professor Helen McShane’s work on her researcher profile. You can also read about Professor McShane’s recent research in the following papers: Safety and efficacy of MVA85A, a new tuberculosis vaccine, in infants previously vaccinated with BCG and Safety and immunogenicity of a candidate tuberculosis vaccine MVA85A delivered by aerosol in BCG-vaccinated healthy adults.

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