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not so much the process but the talent of people that we have in our R&D department. The history of our vaccines business dates back to the 19th century, and it is linked to the very roots of vaccinations with [Emil von] Behring. Professor Behring was one of the founders of vaccines in the 19th century. And at our site in Italy, our history includes the contributions of [Achille] Sclavo, who was one of the lead scientists in vaccinations in the 19th century. So you have this heritage that is attracting people and talent. There is a dedication and passion here that I have not seen anywhere else.
X: What research are you doing in your division of Novartis here in Cambridge that excites you most?
AO: There are two elements that I am excited about. One is the cell-based influenza [vaccine] manufacturing, which is an area where we have made a lot of progress, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, to be better prepared for a pandemic. We all know that while we do the best we can do with the current technology infrastructure, there is room for improvement. The second field I am excited about is our meningitis B vaccine, which is right now at the end of Phase II in the U.S. and in Phase III in Europe. The reason I am excited about this is because it is a new modern way of developing a vaccine where we use reverse genetics to identify genes for proteins that are common to the 400 to 500 stains of meningitis B strain that are circulating. It was simply impossible with old technology to develop a vaccine against such complicated bacteria.
X: What do you think is the most exciting new technology in the vaccine development?
AO: I think it’s the combination of reverse vaccinology, where we try to identify the right antigens by understanding the genome of the bacteria, and structural vaccinology, where with modern three-dimensional technologies we are able to actually visualize the antigen—based on which we can almost design the right antigen that you would use in a vaccine to create the intended immune response.
X: What serious infectious disease threats are we not paying enough attention to here in the United States? Flu, of course, still grabs a lot of headlines.
AO: Influenza is clearly one of them, because we haven’t really solved the influenza challenge. One area that should be of high priority is nosocomial infections [which patients pick up in hospitals]. The belief that antibiotics are going to solve the problem is wrong. The disease burden and the cost to care needed to treat someone is quite expensive. I think that better vaccines against nosocomial diseases like, for example, pseudomonas and clostridia, is an area that needs more attention.
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