Start a New Journey of Vaccine Research in China
China on the books
"In Italy, where I was born, children acquire the first notions about China by reading the book that Marco Polo wrote 700 years ago," said Professor Aldo Tagliabue, "he was a Venetian merchant, explorer and writer who travelled through Asia along the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295."
Marco Polo’s journeys were recorded in The Travels of Marco Polo (also known as Book of the Marvels of the World or Il Milione), a document that described to Europeans the mysterious culture and inner workings of the Eastern world, and the first comprehensive look into China, Persia, India, Japan and other Asian countries.
For many years, China remained a great fantasy in Professor Aldo’s imagination. Then, during his life, he was able to observe the growth of China and learn its impressive progresses from abroad, until at the beginning of 2000 he could finally start to know it in person.
Professor Aldo Tagliabue now is a senior scientist at the Italian National Research Council and co-founder of Achilles Vaccines, Italy. He is an immunologist and vaccinologist active in the field for over 40 years.
Collaborate with scientists in China
His first trip to China was in 2005. In those years he was working in Seoul, South Korea, as R&D Director for the International Vaccine Institutes (IVI). Within a global team, his role was that of creating the new research facilities of the institute and start the R&D operations. Today, IVI has become an important protagonist in the vaccine field at the global level.
"We firstly granted ‘Diseases of the Most Impoverished Program’," said Professor Aldo, "it aims to generate scientific evidence of the burden of cholera, typhoid fever, and shigellosis in Asia and to develop vaccines for those diseases."
As time went by, Professor Aldo found himself in the position of coordinating a group of Chinese scientists, included Fudan University in Shanghai, who were working at IVI, together with a group of European colleagues to prepare of a project proposal aimed to develop vaccines and monoclonal antibodies. In 2005, the project team held the annual meeting in Shanghai. This was when Professor Aldo could visited China for the first time.
Inauguration of International Vaccine Institute research center on June 6th, 2003. (Image by Professor Aldo Tagliabue)
GW Lee, Director General of World Health Organization (second from left) with IVI Research Director Aldo Tagliabue (first from left) and IVI Director General John D. Clemens. (Image by Professor Aldo Tagliabue)
The EU SARSVAC project team meeting in Shanghai in 2004. (Image by Professor Aldo Tagliabue)
Breakthrough revolution in the field of vaccines
In those years, it became evident that vaccines were the best tool to prevent and fight the spread of infections. After almost 200 years from the first vaccine against smallpox by Edward Jenner, new technologies were developed making possible to produce safer and efficient new vaccines.
In 2007, the Novartis Vaccines Institute for Global Health (NVGH) was created in Siena, Italy, with the not-for-profit mission to develop effective and affordable vaccines for neglected infectious diseases in developing countries, and Professor Aldo went to work for NVGH.
This was the first time that a large vaccine manufacturer created an institute to use the knowledge and resources of a company to produce vaccines that are desperately needed in the developing world, and Professor Aldo planned to work closely with researchers in developed and developing countries.
In this scenario of vaccines at the global level, some of Chinese researchers came to visit Professor Aldo’s laboratory in Siena and his wife and colleague Professor Diana Boraschi’s in Pisa. These visits were aimed to share scientific experiences and to make experiments together.
Participants at the meeting for designing the programs for NVGH. (Image by Professor Aldo Tagliabue)
Establish long-term cooperation with China
In 2010, LI Yang, now an associate professor at the Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology (SIAT) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), came to work in Italy, through his introduction, Professor Aldo became aware of the CAS President’s International Fellowship Initiative and started to think that it could be a good chance to work in China and to start new career in Chinese scientific environment.
In 2019 LI Yang asked Professor Diana and him to join his research group at SIAT, brought their experience to create an excellence team of researchers in the field of immune responses to infections and vaccine development.
Thus, he made his application and finally received the support of CAS-PIFI as Visiting Scientist, and it was a very important moment in his life. In September 2021, they finally landed in Shenzhen, Guangzhou.
"Diana and I took the decision to move to China," said Professor Aldo, "our daughter Marzia gave us as a gift a book entitled ‘The Shenzhen Experiment. The story of Chinas Instant City’ written by DU Juan, an award-winning architect and urban planner."
Professor Aldo also learned that modern Shenzhen was the result of the project for establishing a Special Economic Zone in Guandong, originated by DENG Xiaoping. “DENG Xiaoping is an historical leader that transformed China,” said Professor Aldo, “he is very well known in the western world by people of my generation.”
Despite the fact that in his life he had the opportunity to travel a lot, to move from a small town like Siena in Italy, that still has a lot of mediaeval buildings well preserved and that counts a population of less than 60.000 inhabitants, to an extremely modern city of 17 million people like Shenzhen completely built in the last 40 years was giving the impression to travel more in time than in space. But the beauty of life was to accept the challenges and try to adjust himself to new environments.
"Food, tropical climate and language were the most striking changes for me in China," said Professor Aldo, "but the solutions to all these novelties were provided by kindness and respect of the Chinese new friends that I met at work and in private life."
Professor Aldo started his activities at SIAT to promote the knowledge of immunology and the translation of science particularly in the fields of vaccines and treatment of autoimmune diseases with biopharmaceuticals including monoclonal antibodies.
A particularly pleasant and successful moment for Professor Aldo was the seminar organized by International Cooperation Office of SIAT on May, 19, where he communicated to the young experts and students about his wonderful life experiences. And the main message was the importance to expand the proper at the whole world level, since science has no boarders.
What’s more important was that after almost one year preparation, Professor Aldo, together with his wife Professor Diana, started to build a new research unit named "Laboratory of Inflammation and Vaccines" of SIAT, with a group of young Chinese scientists.
This is laboratory aim to develop novel immunotherapeutic drugs and vaccines. The capacity of this laboratory is to control and regulate inflammatory responses and determine whether a person can successfully overcome an infection or a disease, or whether the immune reaction will become pathological.
"Vaccine development will exploit the knowledge about controlling inflammation," said Professor Aldo, "for harnessing its powerful capacity to amplify specific protective immunity and immunological memory."
More importantly, the team will make strong translational effort for transferring the research outputs into new preventive and therapeutic strategies, hope sciences could truly benefiting ordinary people.
"Although I did not have the opportunity to visit all the beautiful places that China," said Professor Aldo, "being a tourist in China for me it is just a memory of the past visits, but now the time has come to visit colleagues in the country, build common projects and enjoy the monuments, experience the natural scenarios and the culture of that empire that we have known as kids from the book of Marco Polo."
Aldo Tagliabue at his presentation of PIFI Talk. (Image by SIAT)
The SIAT laboratory with LI Yang, Diana Boraschi and Aldo Tagliabue at the center of a group of students. (Image by SIAT)