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This month, we speak to Dr Claire Powers, manager of the Viral Vector Core Facility about the facilities capabilities, how you can access these facilities, and how the VVCF played a critical early role in the development of the Oxford/AZ vaccine.

What is the Viral Vector Core Facility?

Cell culture cabinetThe Viral Vector Core Facility (VVCF) supplies pre-clinical grade modified vaccinia Ankara (MVA) vectors or adenoviral vectors (either AdHu5 or the Oxford owned ChAdOx) to academic institutions and some industrial partners. VVCF has existed within the Jenner Institute for over a decade and was initially established as there was the need to have a dedicated team to produce small batches of viral vectors, at low cost, in a short time frame and with appropriate quality control testing.

Where are you based?

The facility was housed within the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Physiology (CCMP) in the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics, but in January 2022, it re-located to new labs within C wing in the Old Road Campus Research Building (ORCRB). As well as standard MVA and adenoviral vectors, we are able to produce pre-GMP grade MVA materials, and pre-clinical grade clonal adenovirus batches. Please see our website for more information: Viral Vector Core Facility — The Jenner Institute

Tell us a little about your background Claire and how you got to the VVCF

Claire PowersMy background is in avian immunology and I worked for a number of years within the Enteric Immunology group at the Institute for Animal Health (Compton). For my PhD I investigated protective immune responses in chickens during Salmonella infection and looked at how gut microflora helps develop the enteric immune system. From there I studied immune responses and vaccine candidates against Marek’s disease virus (MDV) in poultry and later vaccines to Staph. aureus infection in mouse models. I came to work at the VVCF in 2017 as I wanted to continue working in vaccine development but in a role with family friendly hours.

What is your role in the facility?

As the manager of the VVCF facility I am the first point of contact when someone is interested in having a viral vector produced. I offer them advice, discuss what is required, generate a quote for the work and book it all in. I schedule work based on the urgency, staff availability and specific vector requirements to ensure we can produce vectors in given times frames. I have a dedicated team within the labs to do the bulk of the vector production. Luke Blackwell leads adenovirus production, Marzena Wroblewska oversees MVA production, and we have technicians Katie Freeman and Becky Snaith supporting us.  We are a very small team and so I do also work in the labs when other staff are away or the workload is high.

Once the virus batch has been produced and various QC tests performed, I then collate all the information into a report for our end user, prior to batch release. We hold an archive sample of all vectors prepared so that they can be regenerated (re-bulked) if required again.

How many people use the viral vector core facility?

We have many customers within Oxford University but we also provide vectors to other universities and institutions globally. For example, we have recently supplied vectors to Surrey University to be used as vaccine candidates against elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) and vectors to the Pirbright Institute expressing a number of different viral antigens including African swine fever virus (ASFV)

How can people access the facility?

VVCF services are available for all academic research groups. Please contact me, Dr Claire Powers to discuss how we could be of help.

I understand that VVCF was also involved in the development of the Oxford / AZ Covid vaccine 

Adenovirus purification from Caesium ChlorideYes, that’s right. The facility was key to the success of the Oxford / AZ vaccine. Without the animal model data, permission to trial the vaccine in humans would not have been granted. So whilst our sister facility, the Clinical BioManufacturing Facility (CBF), was starting the clinical grade clonal material in the early part of 2020, the VVCF quickly manufactured the pre-clinical grade version. Usually to go from source DNA to final vector in 4-5 weeks. Because this was an emergency situation we were able to shorten this to 2 weeks. The first vector was purified on 17th February 2020 and shipped the following day to several locations globally to put into a range of animal models and start trials the same week.  I’m really proud that the VVCF were able to contribute in such a meaningful way, and am grateful to all the hard work and time given by our small team.