Professor Apostolopoulos quietly saving the world

A globally leading virologist, Vasso Apostolopoulos has been working on vaccines for a range of illnesses that will alter the way we look at disease, she talks to Fotis Kapetopoulos for The Interview

Professor Vasso Apostolopoulos was bullied at school for being the “smart one,” and she took the ultimate nerd’s revenge by becoming a world leading virologist.

“The other kids wanted to rebel, but I worked hard and focused work hard, so when they went out, I stayed in and worked.”

She talked to Neos Kosmos, for The Interview podcast. The migrants’ daughter, bought up in Melbourne’s working-class suburb of St Albans.

“We were migrants, and my parents’ aim was for us to have an education, I believe most of us in our generation that was the aim, we had to go to university.”

The professor and Pro Vice-Chancellor of Research Partnerships at Victoria University has bagged over 100 awards and was named as one of the most successful Greeks abroad by Times magazine.

From the age of four her father taught her times-tables. “I didn’t know how to count, but I knew my times tables, my dad believed if you know your maths you will succeed in life.”

Her father also taught her geography and Greek mythology, “I’d fall asleep when it came to Greek Mythology,” said the professor.

Prof Vasso Apostolopoulos and her team have been on the frontline of the global COVID-19 pandemic working on vaccines and drugs to treat the virus.

She is an expert in immunology, medicinal chemistry, cellular biology, and molecular biology with expertise in vaccines.

She developed immunotherapy for cancer in the 1990s which is today is used by hundreds of labs around the world. Her work went into the development the world’s first breast cancer vaccine with most clinical trials completed. And she developed the world’s first ovarian cancer vaccine.

Prof Apostolopoulos said traditional vaccines were made by taking a bit of a virus that was inactivated, not virulent and then it is injected the person, so the body could recognise it and develop an immune response.”

The idea is that T-Cells are stimulated to build the immune system to fight a virus.

Prof Apostolopoulos said the vaccines are now “very safe”.

“We are making vaccines safer, if I just get a little bit of virus, then mash it up and making it inactive, it’s not as clean, so over the years we came up with new technologies like mRNA, which are new ways of developing that segment of the virus to use and it’s safe in its purified form, and we use that to stimulate the body.”

Prof Apostolopoulos said that a cancer vaccine tries to identify something that’s on the cancer that’s not on the normal cell, so when the cell becomes cancerous, there’s been a change, a mutation.

“In the early 1990s, I had to identify something that’s on the cancer cell that’s not in the normal so identified some markers.”

During this pandemic everyone is a vaccine expert and many of us think we know something, but know little.

There was a lot of hesitancy said Prof Apostolopoulos initially, in people’s minds the “vaccines were made at a very fast pace and that they weren’t tested, and we were Guinea pigs.”

It is all bunk to the professor who has been working with these vaccines since the days of her PhD in 1995.

“I was working on vaccines and coming up with different ways of developing vaccines and I knew about these vectors mRNA started more than 30-years ago, it is a highly purified, synthetic type form of virus, and like I say, these methods were used over 30 years ago.”

The professor shoots down other common narrative by antivaxxers such as, that we did not take enough time to develop appropriate vaccines.

Prof Apostolopoulos said that with current technologies, and the fact that the whole world got behind the development of vaccines, it was natural that technologies that have been around for decades will have got the boost and be ready in less than a year.

She said that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, but we can feel safe knowing that 95 percent of Australia is vaccinated.

COVID-19 virus has mutated over 30,000 times, said Prof Apostolopoulos and in her mind the pandemic is not over – it has not become endemic yet.

“We have heard of Delta, Gama, Beta, Omicron, because they are the ones that have altered the outcome of the disease,” said the professor.

“Ultimately what we will need to do is have an annual vaccine, because all the new mutations will need to be addressed, just like the annual flu vaccine,” said Prof Apostolopoulos.

She said that once you have the system, that is, the methodology and ability to strengthen the immune system you can apply the method to any disease.

Prof Apostolopoulos and her team are now working on vaccines for multiple sclerosis and for Type 1 Diabetes.

“I’ve got about 10 candidate vaccines already to go in humans,” the professor said.