ResearchPublished 29 May 2023
Improving vaccine adjuvants
Four kids, four patents, and sixteen publications later
“It’s been a marathon, not a sprint.” These are Dr Stocker’s sentiments when she reflects on balancing her research into the development of vaccine adjuvants (molecules that improve vaccine efficacy), along with the joys and struggles of raising four kids. “We started our Marden funded research in 2015, not too long before I had my first child,” Dr Stocker said. At the time, she and her partner were contemplating two kids. Four children later, four patents later, 16 publications, and commercial interest which will result in patented adjuvants from the team’s research programme entering human clinical trials in 2026, was not something Dr Stocker anticipated. She took periods of maternity leave during the tenure of the grant, completing it in 2022, and noted that parenting is the harder of the two jobs. “Molecules might not do what you want them to do, but at least they don’t keep you awake half the night.”
Long before the Covid pandemic hit, the research team was focussing on targeting a specific immune cell receptor “Mincle” and using the immune response that was generated to improve the efficacy of vaccines. They did this by designing and synthesising molecules that would better activate Mincle, screening libraries of compounds using immune cells to identify the most potent derivatives, then teaming up with collaborators, including Professor Sho Yamasaki in Japan, who conducted experiments in vaccine models of disease.
The work was a success. Activating Mincle leads to a unique immune profile that can be harnessed in a variety of vaccination settings. In fact, the team’s findings were so promising that a US-based biotech company has sought a license on one of their patents. Dr Stocker and her team are inventors on another patent application with a pharmaceutical company in Japan who are developing new vaccine formulations, and they have two further patent applications which they have developed independently for other classes of Mincle ligands. Their Marsden-funded research was also featured on the cover of the journal ‘Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry’ on two separate occasions in 2020.
“When we started, the world wasn’t as consumed by vaccine research as it is today,” Dr Stocker said. “And to be frank, some people criticised my choice of receptor, saying the work wouldn’t go anywhere. People are entitled to their opinions. You just have to do the work and do it the best you can.” Notwithstanding, Dr Stocker acknowledges how grateful she is for the support of the Marsden Fund for seeing the potential of her research. She is also grateful for her staff, students, and collaborators who made the project a success. “I’m lucky to have had talented people work on this project,” she said. “I’m also grateful to those students and staff who were supportive of my changing situation as I moved from being a scientist, to being a scientist and a Mum.”
Managing work and children is something that has been in the spotlight in recent years, especially on the back of lockdowns, the pandemic, and increases in childhood illnesses that have emerged post-lockdowns. “A science career can be unforgiving”, said Dr Stocker. “Funding is scarce, and you can never do enough to get the research done, the grants written, and the networks established. And this was before Covid,” she added. “I try to remind myself not to be too harsh on myself. I can’t do everything. I can only do what I can do, then I need to sit back and see where life takes me.”
Associate Professor Bridget Stocker (VUW), Associate Professor Mattie Timmer (VUW), and Professor Sho Yamasaki (Osaka University)
Victoria University of Wellington
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