Helena Pozniak
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GSK Ebola specialist was a 'novice' until last year

The Telegraph
Outwitting killer diseases, such as Ebola and malaria, and potentially saving millions of lives is all in a day's work when you're part of GSK’s vaccines division

Prior to last year, infectious diseases specialist Dr Ripley Ballou knew very little about Ebola. “I was a novice – I’d never seen an Ebola patient or touched an Ebola vaccine before last summer,” he says.

Since then, he has been busy working on accelerated trials and exploiting new technology acquired by GSK to try and develop a vaccine. In its latest outbreak, Ebola killed thousands in West Africa, and in the coming weeks around 30,000 people, including healthcare workers, will receive the experimental vaccine in affected countries. “If the vaccine does well in larger trials and its safety is confirmed, we will try and register it to avoid going through another epidemic like this,” says Dr Ballou.

He is better known for helping to discover the world’s first vaccine against malaria. Now head of clinical research and translational science in the vaccines division at GSK, he has devoted some 30 years to discovering the vaccine, which is going through regulatory approval and should be launched next year. “It has consumed my entire career,” he says.

Determined to be a doctor he chose to go to medical school, but he became fascinated with the science of infectious diseases after joining a research branch of the US army. “Seeing patients with deadly diseases is profoundly frustrating. I’ve witnessed families being wiped out, and children caring for the children left behind. In research, you can use science to ask precise questions and figure out how to take better care of patients. I never went back to practising medicine,” he explains.

A mix of roles – in publicly funded research, in a small biotechnology company, with a funding foundation and now 10 years at GSK – has given him an all-round perspective on the processes behind preventing persistent diseases. New vaccines usually take at least a decade to develop, he points out, but the team working on Ebola have managed to compress trials into a year or two by making use of innovative biotechnology recently acquired by GSK and running several phases of research concurrently.

Dr Ballou is used to fielding criticism of the pharmaceuticals industry and being confronted with questions such as: why are scientists only now looking into Ebola? “Until this epidemic, Ebola was relatively rare,” he explains. “Outbreaks were usually short-lived and controlled. The number of people who have died since it was discovered in 1976 is still under 10,000 – a fraction of the millions who have died from malaria, pneumonia and other diarrhoeal diseases.”

In fact, his commitment to beating malaria is personal. Back in the day when scientists were allowed to test experimental vaccines on themselves, Dr Ballou did just that, deliberately catching malaria to see if he could ultimately prevent it. Experiencing the intense headache, pain and chills of the disease was life-changing. “I came through thinking, ‘I’m going to beat this thing.’ And we have, to an extent – partly thanks to important new technology,” he says.

When he’s not working round the clock on the Ebola trials, Dr Ballou mentors young doctors within GSK who are interested in vaccine development. “I was taught by some of the smartest people I know, so leading by example is a big part of what I’m trying to do,” he says, adding that vaccine development has evolved substantially during his lifetime.

“From understanding the infectious diseases you are trying to prevent to getting to grips with the science of immunology, vaccine development is an interesting blend of science and one that has seen a tremendous revolution over the past 10 years. We know so much more than when we started, but there are still plenty of target diseases out there and we need to continue to produce better, safer vaccines.”

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