«Our research could help to design vaccines for the epidemics of the future»

Immunologist Emma Wetter Slack develops innovative oral vaccines against pathogenic intestinal bacteria in farm animals – and against coronaviruses in humans.
Emma Wetter Slack. (Photo: Stefan Weiss)

You’re currently working on an optimised COVID-19 vaccine. What’s your goal here?
We want to ascertain how much protection against SARS-CoV2 can be achieved by immune responses to parts of the virus that are identical in many coronaviruses, including those causing certain common colds in humans. This will help us understand the spread of the current pandemic and might help to design vaccines for the epidemics of the future.

What are the advantages of an oral vaccine that doesn’t need to be injected?
Our vaccines can also be administered through the nose! The advantages are 1) that you can activate a local immune response in the part of your body where infection first occurs and 2) that these vaccines are much easier to pack and distribute in low-resource settings as they don’t need clean needles or trained medical personnel to administer them.

You’re developing vaccines against corona-viruses in humans and also against pathogenic intestinal bacteria in farm animals. Are there any parallels?
There are a lot of differences. But very broadly, in both cases there’s good evidence that a type of antibody, called IgA, provides protection. We can use the same tricks to induce these antibodies against either SARS-CoV-2 or E. coli.

What has been your experience of working in interdisciplinary teams?
My most successful collaborations have grown out of attending a seminar on a topic outside my comfort zone and starting a discussion. Where there’s a common will to solve a problem across disciplines, really exciting things can happen. One of the real pleasures of working at ETH is that people are so open to collaborating like this.

The proportion of female professors in your department is rather high. Why might this be?
Typically, the Department of Health Sciences and Technology has over 60 % female Bachelor’s students, 50 % female PhD candidates, yet only 28 % female professors. Yes, we’re above average, but the pipeline is still leaky! That said, strong role models and the motivation to improve diversity in the departmental leadership is a good starting point