Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Ballina native, Prof Ed Lavelle, is the head of Trinity College’s Department of Biochemistry and Immunology and hopes to play a role in the search for a Covid-19 vaccine this year.

By Orla Hearns

A Ballina native who is the head of the prestigious department of biochemistry and immunology at Trinity College in Dublin says he hopes to be directly involved in researching a vaccine for the Covid-19 virus.

Prof Ed Lavelle says this latest strain of coronavirus is a reminder that people cannot afford to be complacent about vaccination and also reinforces the importance of governments investing in and encouraging scientific research.

“When outbreaks like this happen it tends to focus people’s minds on the benefits of vaccines whereas sometimes – and especially in the last five or 10 years – the public often focuses on the very small negative effects of vaccines. They forget that there was a time – even for our grandparents’ generation – when lots of families would have lost children early in life because of infections.

“New infections are always going to pop up and you can never tell where. The only long-term way of dealing with them is to make a vaccine.”

Ed is a son of Eddie and Maureen Lavelle of Faranoo on the Killala Road. His mum operated a B&B for many years while his father worked for Telecom Eireann and was active in several local organisations including the local Trades Council.

Ed was educated at Culleens NS and St Muredach’s College before proceeding to obtain a degree in microbiology at NUI Galway.

He remarks that his education locally and in university left him well placed to pursue his career in academia which began with obtaining a PhD in Plymouth in England. He followed this with further research in the University of Nottingham and the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen before returning to Ireland to take up research in Trinity where he was awarded a lectureship in 2004.

“I really enjoyed microbiology but I was kind of fascinated with how we deal with infections – in bacteria and viruses themselves but also in how we deal with infections. My PhD was in immunology and that is when I got hooked on vaccines,” he explains.

Today, Ed specialises in the creation of adjuvants to boost immune responses to infections and cancers.

The current Covid-19 outbreak is one of six major epidemics to have impacted the world in the last 15 years. Ed says mankind has always been subject to such outbreaks. The difference today is that travel is so commonplace that viruses spread very quickly.

The good news is that recent technological advances mean scientists are now able to sequence and identify viruses faster than ever before which means that work can quickly get underway on creating a vaccine. That process is, however, subject to very strict regulations and testing.

Ed says that while it is possible that a fully tested vaccine could be ready for the market within 18 months it would be an extraordinary achievement because there are still a lot of unknowns about the Covid-19 virus.

“Hopefully it will be contained within the next few months. But even if it takes 18 months to make a vaccine you would hope that if this becomes a yearly phenomenon that it could be possible to have everyone vaccinated within two years. That would be a fantastic advance,” he remarks.

Ed says Trinity College is very well recognised for its research in the field of immunology. He is hoping that he and his colleagues will soon be able to get their hands on the antigens that will allow them start to work on creating an effective adjuvant for any potential Covid-19 vaccine.

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