Eyes on the Horizon
A passion to alleviate suffering throughout the world initially inspired Irnela Bajrovic to pursue a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical science, and her latest assignment—creating an affordable, oral Ebola vaccine—is on track to do just that.
From 1992 to 1995, Bosnia was in the heat of a civil war that, in its wake, would leave some 100,000 people dead. This is the world Irnela Bajrovic was born into. While her family eventually fled to the U.S. when she was just 2 years old, it’s safe to say Bajrovic is no stranger to suffering and hardship. Through the kindness of others, her family rooted themselves in America and set to work returning that kindness by helping others.
Her passion to aid and alleviate people’s suffering is what motivated Bajrovic to pursue a career in pharmaceutics.
“There are people dying of malaria, dengue and Ebola, and there’s this kind of attitude of ‘That’s not my problem,’ ” Bajrovic says. “I have heard people ask, ‘Why do you care so much? It’s not a problem in the U.S.,’ but it is a problem in the world, and an unnecessary problem when so many infectious diseases should be completely eradicated.”
Between November 2015 and May 2016, more than 28,000 people were infected and 11,310 people died from the Ebola virus in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization. The Ebola outbreak in 2014 was the deadliest since it’s first occurrence in 1976. According to BBC News, the outbreak led to the death of five times more people than all other outbreaks combined.
Bajrovic’s journey to pharmaceutics began when she joined the Freshman Research Initiative during her first semester at the University of Texas. Through the initiative, she got to dip her toes in various applications of biology and chemistry.
“I started in a lab my spring semester on the synthesis and biological recognition stream. I liked that because it was very medicinal and organic-chemistry-based. At the time, that was what I thought I wanted to do,” Bajrovic explains.
While she enjoyed the research, that particular field didn’t fall in line with her interests. It wasn’t until she joined Dr. Maria Croyle’s lab during the spring semester of her junior year that she would find her true calling: studying infectious diseases.
“When I first started working in the lab, I fell in love with the work and the project I was given. Dr. Maria Croyle worked with Ebola and infectious disease…and I saw how passionate she was about it,” she says.
Croyle’s team had developed a preliminary nasal vaccine for Ebola—a vaccine that worked. The next step on the horizon was to develop an oral equivalent.
The following spring, the lab manager approached Bajrovic with the idea of developing a non-injectable vaccine. More than eager for this opportunity, she helped curate oral adhesive patches that, once attached, inject an Ebola vaccine into the inner cheek in the buccal cavity.
“Originally, it was just a vaccine in general, but Dr. Croyle was…working on a vaccine for Ebola, so, we integrated the two ideas,” Bajrovic says.
Here’s how the vaccine works: The DNA sequence for the vaccine protein is placed in the adenovirus genome. The adenovirus then infects cells and makes them produce a single protein from the Ebola virus. The human body recognizes this Ebola protein and creates antibodies to protect against the disease without actually exposing people to the virus.
“Aside from the transgene, this virus is exactly the same as the virus used to deliver the Ebola glycoprotein in [Croyle’s] Ebola vaccine,” Bajrovic says.
Even though the vaccine has come a long way from a mere concept, there is still much work to be done until this delivery method is finalized, work Bajrovic is eager to take on. In the next three to four years before her graduation, Bajrovic says her Ph.D. research will focus on finalizing this vaccine delivery method.
For arid climates or places with unclean environments, she says, this needle-free method of vaccination would be a major milestone in alleviating the devastating affects of Ebola.
“[Creating vaccinations] is a very complicated procedure,” Bajrovic expounds. “If we could simplify it and make this cheap, affordable product, vaccines could be much more easily deliverable to patients that direly need them.”
Photo courtesy of Irnela Bajrovic.