How this scientist is trying to solve a major vaccine challenge

16 Jun 2021

Dr Asel Sartbaeva. Image: Nic Delves-Broughton/IDPS, University of Bath

Dr Asel Sartbaeva’s pioneering technology could eradicate the need for cold chains, keeping vaccines safe and easier to distribute.

For obvious reasons, vaccines have become one of the biggest news stories across the world in recent months. From the first encouraging responses in early clinical trials to worldwide roll-outs, the public has been kept more informed than ever about the production of vaccines.

But aside from the development of the Covid-19 vaccines specifically, there has also been fascinating scientific breakthroughs such as the mRNA technology that is being used by some pharma companies and wider discussions around the need for cold supply chains.

The vast majority of vaccines must be kept refrigerated from when they’re made to when they’re used to avoid degradation. Temperatures vary, with some needing extremely low temperatures. For example, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for Covid-19 initially needed to be kept at minus-70 degrees Celsius until a few days before use.

Such temperature requirements pose a major challenge when it comes to vaccine distribution, particularly in poorer areas of the world that may have high temperatures, spotty electricity, difficult transport routes and civil unrest.

One scientist who has been trying to address the cold supply chain issue for many years is award-winning chemist Dr Asel Sartbaeva.

Born in Kyrgyzstan before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sartbaeva said science became an escape for her at a time when there was so much change and instability around her.

“Science felt like something that wouldn’t collapse all of a sudden, it felt concrete and reliable. It had structure that I needed and it was an act of rebellion against my very art-oriented family,” she told Siliconrepublic.com.

Sartbaeva now works as an associate professor in chemistry at the University of Bath and has 17 years’ experience in silica-based materials and zeolites, which are porous materials that are very useful as catalysts in industry.

But it was in 2010 when her daughter was born that she turned her attention to vaccines. “I took her to be vaccinated and observed that the vaccine was taken out of the fridge just before injection. So, I asked the doctor if we should wait for it to warm up, to which he answered that it would spoil if we don’t administer it directly,” she said.

“That’s when I started thinking about this problem of vaccine cold chain. I thought perhaps I can use my knowledge of silica to see if it is possible to create an individual cage on nanoscale for each vaccine component.”

All viruses have a protein coat, with proteins made of amino acid chains. Those proteins start to break down at room temperatures by the physical unfolding of the amino acid chains. This means vaccines that contain virus particles also start to degrade.

Sartbaeva’s ‘individual cage’ involves what’s known as ensilication, a chemical process that creates a favourable environment to grow as a network on target vaccine components, creating a shell and preventing the proteins from unfolding. The first paper on ensilication was published in 2017.

‘Whole countries will finally be able to import vaccines that are impossible to acquire today’
– DR ASEL SARTBAEVA

According to the World Health Organization, immunisation prevents between four and five million deaths every year.

However, it says that an additional 1.5m deaths could be avoided if global vaccination coverage improves. It also estimates that 19.7m children under the age of one did not receive basic vaccines in 2018.

Sartbaeva said this is sometimes due to the lack of electricity or infrastructure to bring life-saving vaccines to those infants. She said her method of ensilication could mean cheaper vaccines, with no need for electricity, fridges, freezers or temperature loggers.

“This would also mean that some whole countries will finally be able to import vaccines that are impossible to acquire today. For me, the most important thing will be that we will be able to vaccinate everyone around the globe. Saving lives is a worthwhile goal, I think.”

While low-income countries face clear challenges when it comes to the cold supply chain, Sartbaeva said it can still pose problems in other countries.

“The latest pandemic has shown that even in the UK and US, cold chain has interfered with fast deployment of vaccines. Wales, for example, started vaccinations later than England due to the lack of fridge and freezer equipment in December 2020 and January 2021.”

Working so closely with vaccines, Sartbaeva is unsurprisingly passionate about eradicating misconceptions that vaccines do not work.

“Current vaccines are highly effective and very safe. It is always better to prevent the illness than to treat it. I would really urge everyone to get vaccinated against as many diseases as possible,” she said.

“Even outside the pandemic, there are plenty of diseases that need good herd immunity that could only be achieved by mass vaccination of everyone, such as seasonal flu and childhood diseases such as measles, whooping cough, rubella, diphtheria and others.”

Working in STEM

Throughout her career, Sartbaeva has won several awards for her work, including a prize at the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Emerging Technologies Competition in 2020 and being named Woman of the Year 2021 by FDM Everywoman in Technology.

But she has also faced challenges dealing with her own self-confidence and self-esteem.

“It took me a long time to convince myself that I deserve to be successful, to be happy with my work etc. It was also hard to build my confidence and to fight the imposter syndrome. I still find it hard to accept the failures, and it takes me some time to get myself together to move on,” she said.

She also said there is a misconception that there is equality in academia and STEM. “I have been underestimated a lot. I mean, really a lot, almost at every stage of my career. I am an Asian woman working in academia, I don’t have any illusions and I always understood that to be where I am now, I had to work three times harder than many of my peers.”

But she added that she now loves supporting young women in science and academia, because she believes this will help to achieve equality faster. She is also focusing on supporting herself more.

“There were times when I blamed myself for failures or if something went wrong,” she said. “In the long run, I think most of the time, I could have been kinder to myself, I am learning this gradually.”

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Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com