I AM Jeffrey Cheah Professorial Fellow and Tutor in Medicine at Brasenose College, Oxford, and Professor of Virology at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford.
It has been my privilege, as a Jeffrey Cheah Fellow, to pay several academic visits to Sunway over the last few years to contribute to academic conferences, and to meet staff and students of the university.
By visiting Sunway one can immediately see what a visionary like Sunway Group founder and chairman Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah can achieve in a few decades.
Built on the site of a disused tin mine, a city has risen with shopping malls, shopping strips, hotels, residences, a theme park, a major hospital and an educational precinct, which has Sunway University as its centrepiece.
Although universities differ vastly in age, students remain always young. And, like their contemporaries in Oxford, they are smart, inquisitive and uncynical, so it is always a pleasure to visit.
I feel that there is an enormous pool of young talent in Malaysia that needs the opportunity for learning that outward-facing universities like Sunway can offer.
Tan Sri Dr Cheah's vision to engage with the most illustrious universities in the world, and his success in doing so is truly remarkable. My appointment as Jeffrey Cheah Professorial Fellow allows for all kinds of joint work between our two institutions.
In Brasenose College, through the Jeffrey Cheah Scholar-in-Residence programme, we have a stream of Sunway academics residing in Oxford each year, making connections and fostering the development of joint projects.
As a young university, Sunway will benefit greatly from the bonds of friendship with the oldest university in the UK and, dare I say, the top university in the world.
We are always willing to associate ourselves with Sunway in carrying out collaborative projects in areas of mutual expertise, which can bring renown to our respective institutions and to Malaysia.
Although best known for our work on the biology of HIV infection of macrophages, my lab has had a continuing interest in the biology of more exotic enveloped RNA viruses – including dengue, Zika, and Bunyamwera viruses – that from time to time cause serious outbreaks around the world, and which in principle could re-emerge as public health problems more widely.
At the beginning of 2020, we were very focused on using the stem cell-based technology we had developed for HIV research to investigate the genetic control of chronic inflammatory processes in both HIV-associated neurocognitive disease and in common neurodegenerative disorders.
As the pandemic began to take hold, however, we realised that our “steam age” virology expertise was in short supply in the UK and could make a significant contribution to the urgent search for effective new therapies and vaccines for Covid-19.
Accordingly, during March my colleagues and I began the process of reconfiguring the containment level III laboratory suite at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, which we had built for HIV research 25 years earlier, to handle the new coronavirus.
This rapid turnaround gained certification by the HSE over Easter, and we set about establishing standardised procedures for evaluating both new candidate drugs to treat Covid-19 infection, and antibodies to provide immunity to infection.
This was in no small measure made possible by generous contributions to the university’s rapid response fund by philanthropic donors. We have been able to recruit and train about a dozen scientists, whose research projects on other viruses had been temporarily suspended during the lockdown, to constitute dedicated teams to run each of these specialised procedures.
I have taken personal responsibility for the team evaluating the neutralising potency of antibodies and related molecules, and it has been very rewarding to be able to evaluate cutting-edge candidate molecules coming, not only from academic and clinical laboratories in Oxford and the Oxford region, but also from biotech companies as far apart as Colorado and Guangzhou.
In a very short time, we have been able to identify extremely promising candidates, the results of which are now already in the public domain, and which are being actively pursued for clinical development.
We have recently developed a new, high throughput technique, which will enable us to evaluate many more samples and recently began an exciting new phase in which we use the technique to investigate the quality of antibody responses made by participants in the first phase of the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine programme.
As lockdown eases, the scientists who have been seconded to the core virus facility are beginning to think once again about returning to their main research projects.
Accordingly, we are actively investigating ways in which we can put the core virology service on a more sustainable footing.
We are very conscious that the world remains vulnerable not only to second waves of SARS-CoV-2 but also to other as yet unidentified emerging viruses, and are determined to play our part in ensuring that future generations have the ability to respond rapidly and effectively.
About Prof William James
A Jeffrey Cheah Professororial Fellow Emeritus and Fellow in Medicine at Brasenose College, Oxford, Prof James is a virologist with a background in genetics and microbiology.
As the Professor of Virology with University of Oxford, he is the principal investigator at the Stem Cell Research Institute of Oxford, running a research lab studying HIV-macrophage biology using stem cell technology.
His research interest since the mid-1980s has been largely focused on the AIDS virus, HIV-1, particularly how it replicates in macrophages and how smart nucleic acids can be developed to prevent its replication.
He focuses on how stem cells can be used to rewrite the defence cells of the brain to make them resistant to HIV. It could one day provide insights into which drugs can be used to help slow down or prevent the neuro-degenerative effects of the virus.
He was also the University of Oxford’s Pro Vice-Chancellor for Planning and Resource Allocation from 2011 to 2017.