Exploitation of virus-like particles for vaccinology and the development of safe efficacious Bluetongue virus vaccine

Researchers at the School are leading the way on the development of a vaccine for Bluetongue virus (BTV), a disease that has killed two million animals, mainly cattle, in Europe since 1998.

The research has had implications on vaccine development among both humans and animals with its pioneering use of virus-like particle (VLP) vaccines.

Polly Roy, professor of virology at the School, is a leading expert on Bluetongue virus and has undertaken the first complete molecular understanding of this viral pathogen. Because of her work researchers know every aspect of the BTV replication cycle from virus entry via genome replication to virus assembly and structure, cell-to-cell transmission and the engagement of the virus particle with the host cell.

Such a holistic understanding of the virus has led to improved diagnostics and vaccines. Her work also has promising implications for the understanding of similar viruses that are pathogenic to both humans and animals, such as the Rotavirus and the Rift Valley fever virus.

After several European outbreaks of Bluetongue virus, Roy embarked on a research programme aimed at designing VLP-based vaccines. Firstly, she pioneered improved multi-protein expression vectors for the development of promising vaccines. She then generated VLPs for European Bluetongue serotypes and tested their efficacy in different European breeds of sheep.

Another important research area has been the development of the first reverse genetic system, which enables the creation of novel, genetically attenuated BTV strains as safe and effective vaccines. Similar approaches could be applied to other animal and human viruses.

Roy’s research has led to the development of fundamentally new vaccines, a great improvement on existing and relatively crude BTV vaccines, based on the attenuated virus. Roy has now formed a commercial partnership with Boehringer Ingelheim, a major pharmaceutical firm, which hopes to be able to market Roy’s patented vaccine within the next few years. The fact that VLP vaccines are safer to produce than live versions is a significant commercial advantage to the company.

Roy and colleagues have pioneered and developed proof of concept of VLP technology for vaccine development. This has been made available to all scientists and has contributed to the development of a number of VLP vaccines for influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome, Ebola and foot and mouth disease virus. 

Roy has also carried out research based on her reverse genetics technique to address the poor performance of current attenuated vaccines in collaboration with European scientists. A polyvalent vaccine has the potential to offer cross-serotype protection to most of Europe’s 150 million sheep and cattle population.