Jan Naessens, is an immunology expert in livestock research working with the International Livestock Research institute (ILRI) Biotechnology Theme. In this interview we look at his career from the moment when he hardly dreamt of becoming a scientist, his contributions to immunology research, his optimism about CBBP research as well as other interests.
1. Did you always envisage a career in animal research as an immunologist?
After my graduate degree in chemistry at Free university, Brussels, I taught chemistry at the same university for 7 years and for some time I aspired to become a teacher! During that period, I did my PhD in immuno chemistry where I studied gene expression and the changes in animals’ biology that fascinated me a lot, this is where my interest in immunology was stirred and the journey to my career as an immunologist began.
2. What made you decide to come and work in Kenya?
While I was teaching I had an opportunity to attend a conference at the Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp where I met a scientist carrying out research in Kenya who informed me of some of the opportunities for an immunologist at ILRI, back then it was ILRAD, which appealed to me. There was also the fact that I wasn’t keen on doing military service which every male in Belgium had to do back in the 1980s and coming to work in a developing country automatically meant no military service! These two factors combined made it an opportunity that I could not resist.
3. How was your early scientific career like when you joined ILRI and what kept you going?
When I joined ILRAD in the early 1980s my initial assignment was to do research on East Coast fever (ECF) and to find a way to separate infected from uninfected cells. During that period immunology made a big leap through the use of monoclonal antibodies that allowed immunologists to dissect the immune system. This was also the era when immunologists began to understand how cancer cells were working and we in Theileria research started to link the data from cancer cells research with the transformation event observed with Theileria parva, the parasitic protozoa that causes ECF. This was a remarkable period in science, a lot of information was now becoming available and suddenly we had the right tools for our animal research. All this was happening during my earlier years as a scientist in Kenya, and I grew more passionate about the immunology of parasitic diseases, since then there was no turning back.
4. You were part of the reputable team that made the major breakthrough in studying the immunology of cattle, how was this possible and what was the experience like?
The immunology jump availed the right tools (monoclonal antibodies that identified the different functional immune cell populations) for immunology research in livestock. Prior to this, such tools were only available for human and mouse research. Once we got our panel of antibodies at ILRI, we could discriminate T and B cells, and recognize the different types of functional T lymphocytes and explain some key characteristics in the makeup of cattle, for instance why some animals were able to protect themselves from various diseases while others were not. For ECF, we discovered that protection was mediated by killer cells and gave us hope for finding a new experimental ECF vaccine. In trypanosomiasis, the tools allowed us to conclude that some cattle were typanotolerant because they had better innate responses.
5. Why did you stop working on those diseases?
Working on trypanosomiasis, I quickly realized that the possibility for developing a vaccine was very slim and probably impossible. Once I also showed that trypanotolerance was not the result of a protective immune response, I decided that, as an immunology expert, there was now little that I could do to help find a solution to bovine trypanosomiasis. However I think that there is still a possibility to improve on a sporozoite vaccine.
6. You joined the CBPP research team in 2009, what are some the factors that drew you to it?
Firstly, the current live vaccine has been successful in eliminating CBPP from certain areas in Africa, despite the fact that it has a low efficacy and gives short immunity (between half and one year), implying that we do not have to develop a vaccine that is 100% effective to already make a serious impact in the field. Secondly, there were a number of preliminary experiments that provided evidence that inactivated bacteria can induce protection, this means that a subunit vaccine that would offer better protection, longer immunity and avoid the cold chain storage might be possible. Finally, the time frame to show proof of concept for a possible dead vaccine would not be so long.
7. What are some of the challenges in CBPP research?
Few scientists are working on this disease, and the amount of reliable data about CBPP is rather small. For example, we do not know which immune responses provide protection, nor the pathogen antigens that induce protection, nor how the pathogen causes disease, why it only affects cattle or what causes virulence. One does not necessarily have to know all these answers to develop a vaccine, but more information would certainly help. Few laboratories in the developed world, with good infrastructure for rapid research progress, work on the pathogen because of restrictions in their countries that are now free of CBPP. And since CBPP is only a problem in Africa, it is a neglected disease that attracts little commitment from the developed world. Finally, most research carried out on CBPP is haphazard with few systematic approaches to tackle this disease.
8. Are you optimistic about CBPP research and getting a more efficient and improved vaccine for it?
Back when I was a child a tetanus vaccine had to be repeated every year to remain effective, but now the vaccine is given after every 10 years because the delivery systems have improved. This is exactly the kind of effect we expect to work for CBPP, the goal is to get a vaccine that gives longer immunity. If you insist, to carry out the experiments that would confirm the possibility for such a vaccine (not the vaccine itself) would take maximum 3-4 years. So, yes am very optimistic about finding a better vaccine or a subunit vaccine that will be more efficient.
9. What are some of the things that you find fascinating about being a scientist and lessons you have learnt along the way?
What fascinates me most is that nature always surprises us. There are times when you think that you have understood the nature of a problem and expect a particular kind of outcome to an experiment only to get a totally unexpected result that can lead to different insights and contribute to new knowledge. Science is therefore very interesting and dynamic contrary to popular belief that it is boring, there is always something new.
The appreciation and recognition from colleagues in the profession and their use of our results, methods and tools has been very encouraging and keeps us ticking. Another boost is to see our students becoming successful in their own right.
10. What would you say a successful scientific career entails?
A scientific career is all about reputation, whether in finding a job, getting your papers published or your proposals funded. You start building your reputation or career with your PhD and here quality of your work is more important than quantity. Make sure you have a nice science-detective story to tell your audience and your interviewers. Learn how to captivate their interest, and show off how your creativity was central in solving the puzzle. For a more established scientist, the impact of your research becomes more important.
Finally, don’t spoil your reputation and attempt to manipulate data, however small the transgression. Continuously improved and open source software now allows anyone to systematically scan peer-reviewed papers, however long ago they were published, for signs of fraud: do data sets obey Benford’s law, have photos been manipulated, has text been dishonestly copied. Surprisingly, the occurrence of small fraud is much higher than everyone expected, with embarrassing consequences even for some renowned scientists… and the search is continuing. Expect some fireworks.
11. Away from science what do you like to do?
My interests have been changing over the years, when I was younger I used to love playing classical music and that almost got me a career as classical guitar teacher. Once in Kenya, I loved to fly small aircraft as a private pilot, discovering the beautiful landscapes all over Kenya and participating in all kinds of navigational competitions. Currently I love hiking mountains in different parts of Kenya and East Africa, in addition to my regular runs that keep me fit for playing with my grandson!