Rino Rappuoli: “Scientific research at the forefront of national strategies for countering future pandemics thanks to the Biotecnopolo di Siena Foundation”

Accomplishing great things is possible also in Italy. This is the mission that Rino Rappuoli, scientific director of the Biotecnopolo Foundation, is willing to fulfill. Microbiologist of international renown and among the world’s leading authorities in the field of vaccines, Professor Rappuoli has always been committed to achieving his goal. An entire lifetime dedicated to science, from being scientific director and head of vaccine research and development at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Vaccines to becoming head of the Biotecnopolo di Siena Foundation, an important strategic project at national level.

Despite having received international awards, having been visiting scientist at the Rockefeller University in New York and the Harvard Medical School of Boston and having cooperated with research institutes from all over the world, Professor Rappuoli has always chosen to be a scientist in his hometown, Siena. Here, he covered the role of director of vaccine research for the most important pharmaceutical companies of the territory, from Sclavo and Chiron Corporation to Novartis Vaccines, that have alternated over the years on the so-called “collina dei vaccini” (lit. “vaccines’ hill”). 

When giving his speeches around the world in front of the foremost experts in immunology (among which Anthony Fauci), Professor Rappuoli always mentions the “facciatone” of the Siena Cathedral as if it was the biggest monument dedicated to infectious diseases ever built. “Pandemics – explains Professor Rappuoli – have always existed and have always resulted in the devastation of economies and societies, both ancient and modern”. That was the case with the plague that struck the city of Siena in 1348, decimating its population and destroying its prosperous economic and cultural system. After that pandemic, Siena couldn’t restore its former glory. What is left to testify the destructive power of infectious diseases are the unfinished doors and windows of the abovementioned “facciatone”, as people from Siena call it, which represents the dream of a “magnificent Church” that collapsed under the blows of an invisible bacteria.

First the plague of 1348 and then Covid-19: history always repeats itself. Siena might have been disrupted before having the chance to build its magnificent Cathedral, but nonetheless, it survived. Today, Siena is at the forefront of the combat against infectious diseases.  

Siena has a strong scientific tradition that started in the early twentieth century, when Achille Sclavo founded the Istituto Vaccinogeno Sieroterapico Toscano”, explains Professor Rappuoli “and this is precisely the reason why it’s now a candidate to become not only a national model for vaccines research but also an international centre against pandemics thanks to the Biotecnopolo Foundation”. A national strategic project aimed at developing applied research and innovation in the field of biotechnologies and life sciences. The Biotecnopolo Foundation is a private legal entity, and its founding members include the Italian Ministries of University and Research, Health, Economy and Finance and Economic Development, and it stands at the heart of an international network for countering pandemics. Moreover, it aims to promote and coordinate study, research, technical and scientific development, and technology transfer activities.

The Foundation also functions as a pandemic hub particularly focused on the development and production of vaccines and monoclonal antibodies for the treatment of emerging epidemics and pandemic diseases. Professor Rino Rappuoli, appointed director of research, explains that “The Biotecnopolo represents a unicum in Europe, and perhaps even in the World. Covid-19 taught us a lesson: pandemics will always be part of the history of humanity, and the only thing we can do to fight them is invest in scientific research. We must make sure we are ready to develop treatments and vaccines in advance”.  The reason, as recalled by Rappuoli, is that “besides Covid, the WHO has identified 30 potentially dangerous virus families, not to mention what the scientific community calls the silent pandemic, i.e., the antimicrobial resistance”.

“We are talking about a slow but high-risk pandemic. It is a true worldwide challenge. Of course, we need new antibiotics, but we also need to implement alternative measures such as vaccines for antibiotic-resistant bacteria or monoclonal antibodies against harmful bacteria, which we’re currently working on at the Biotecnopolo Foundation thanks to the great experience of the Toscana Life Sciences’ Monoclonal Antibody Discovery Lab. In fact, the MAD Lab started its activities in 2018 thanks to a 2.5 million euros ERC Advanced Grant for a research project focused on antimicrobial resistance. Researchers at the MAD Lab can count on a solid experience in detecting and producing human monoclonal antibodies that can be tested in vitro against both bacterial species and viruses”.

Antimicrobial resistance is a global risk, and the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance has estimated that AMR could cause 10 million deaths a year by 2050 – far exceeding deaths from cancer (8.2 million), diabetes (1.5 million) or traffic accidents (1.2 million) – with projected costs exceeding 100 trillion dollars, that is more than 3 Covid pandemics. In Italy, antimicrobial resistance is among the highest in Europe, and is, in most cases, above the European average. Every year, 7 to 10% of patients undergo a multi-drug resistant bacterial infection that results in thousands of deaths. Each year, these infections affect ca. 284.100 patients, causing ca. 4.500-7.000 deaths.

It is imperative to develop new therapies and vaccines capable of handling future pandemic threats, hoping that we will never need to use them”, explains Professor Rappuoli. “We will cooperate with the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), and more in general with competent institutions at international level for handling health emergencies”. We will witness a true scientific revolution starring our country and especially young people. “The Biotecnopolo is going to be a talent attractor, a normal place where special things will happen. We are going to have a unique opportunity to overcome the greatest human health challenges all together”.