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Professor Gordon Dougan

Professor Gordon Dougan has been awarded this year’s Albert B Sabin Gold Medal Award for his work in vaccinology. Awarded annually by the Albert B Sabin Institute in Washington and named after the inventor of the oral polio vaccine, the medal is the highest international award for contributions to vaccinology and disease control.

The medal is awarded to individuals who have made transformational contributions in the field, leading to many lives being saved. Previous winners have included Donald Henderson, who led the programme to eradicate smallpox, and Maurice Hilleman, who invented the MMR vaccine. Gordon was due to receive the award at the National Academy for Sciences, Washington on the 25th March but the award announcement was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He has been a leading influencer in the vaccine world since the 1980s, contributing to vaccine discovery, manufacture and delivery.

His work has focused particularly on making quality, low cost vaccines that can be used by those who normally cannot afford them. There are many vaccines and vaccine initiatives that would not have been developed without his strategic vision. His research work has helped to redefine our understanding of how infections spread around the world, a subject of direct relevance to the current COVID-19 epidemic.

Gordon was born in Scunthorpe in the north of England and is the first UK national to win the award. After obtaining a PhD from Sussex University he trained with Professor Stanley Falkow in Seattle, a Lasker Prize winner and world leader in studies on how bacteria cause disease. The team was one of the first in the world to apply gene cloning to vaccine development. He continued this work as a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, helping to define vaccine antigens for animal diseases.

While at Trinity, Gordon published a classic paper in the journal Nature on this work. Gordon then spent over 10 years in industry at the Wellcome Foundation (a UK company now part of GSK), making vaccines and other medicines. There, his group worked on many vaccines including whooping cough, defining the protective antigen known as pertactin, which is now a component of new generation safer whooping cough vaccines.

In 1992, Gordon left industry and moved to Imperial College London, where he established the Centre for Molecular Microbiology and Infection (now Centre for Bacteriology and Infection) and secured funding for the iconic Flowers Building that stands adjacent to the Science Museum, London. Gordon spent 10 years at Imperial, building a world leading centre for teaching and research. During this period, together with Rino Rappuoli (Siena, Italy), he proved that the toxicity of cholera-like toxins could be separated from adjuvanticity (immunostimulation), improving our ability to deliver vaccines orally. 

In 2004, Gordon became Head of Pathogen Research at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge. Over the next decade he built a department that led the world in research on infection genomics and disease tracking. His own team helped define the global population structure of many important pathogens, supplying open access (free) data and technology of direct relevance to vaccines and antigen discovery. This enormous body of work has transformed our understanding of pathogen evolution and spread, for example identifying mechanisms of vaccine escape in Pneumococcal pneumonia.

His article on cholera genomics, published in Nature, redefined our understanding of how cholera spreads around the world, helping the deployment of vaccination and guiding policy. His teams established a genome sequencing pipeline on behalf of the Wellcome Trust in response to the H1N1 epidemic. They also highlighted how particularly virulent clades of bacteria were driving the spread of antibiotic resistance (AMR). They identified globally epidemic clades of typhoid such as H58 and ST313 a highly invasive form of salmonella killing thousands of children across Africa.

Gordon worked with Andy Pollard (Oxford University) to establish the typhoid human challenge model. This combined epidemiological and infection challenge approach had significant influence on the decision of WHO/SAGE to support implementation of typhoid conjugate vaccines. Human challenge is now being considered for many diseases such as COVID-19 as a quicker route to develop vaccines.

Gordon has worked extensively with the World Health Organization, including chairing the influential TDR ‘Vaccines for Neglected Diseases’ committee. He is currently a Trustee of the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul Korea, established by the UN to facilitate the introduction of low-cost vaccines. He chaired the Novartis Vaccines Advisory Board for many years, helping shape their product portfolio including Bexsero (the new meningitis B vaccine). He served on the Advisory Board of Biovac, the only vaccine company in Sub-Saharan Africa, promoting vaccine technology on the continent. Gordon served on the Board of the Hilleman Laboratories, where he brought in the stabilized oral cholera (Hikojima/Hillcol) vaccine now being developed by Bharat, India.

Gordon has founded companies, including Microbiotica working on novel approaches to tackling infections via bacteriotherapies and VHSquared, making nanobody antibodies.

He is currently working part of the week on secondment at Wellcome, helping to develop a strategy programme covering vaccines and innovations. Gordon holds a personal chair in the Department of Medicine, University of Cambridge, and is a Fellow of Wolfson College. He is also a member of the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Diseases (CITIID) and has been creating a new initiative on infection and antibiotic resistance in the Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre building.

During the coronavirus pandemic he helped set up testing for COVID-19 in the hospital healthcare workers, established safe containment facilities for handling the SARS-CoV-2 virus and worked on the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium virus sequencing project, tracking virus movement into and across the UK.

Gordon has received many accolades for his work. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, a member of EMBO and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He has published over 300 research papers, many in high impact journals and is highly cited (H-index 100). He has a deserved reputation for his ability to mentor young scientists, many of whom are now influencers in their own right. These include many professors, industrial leaders and even a university vice-chancellor (Professor Duncan Maskell at the University of Melbourne). Although he prefers to work quietly towards his goals he was recognised in a straw poll taken in the vaccine industry as one of the top ten vaccine influencers in the world.

Further information on the Albert B Sabin Gold Medal Award

Date awarded

11 August 2020


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Professor Gordon Dougan