Press release | 15.6.2017
Venice/Munich, 15 June 2017 - Infectious diseases such as diphtheria, bacterial meningitis and whooping cough have essentially been eradicated in the developed world, thanks to a new generation of vaccines invented by Rino Rappuoli (65). Over the course of a research career spanning more than 40 years, the Italian microbiologist from the town of Siena has pioneered numerous life-saving immunisations and advanced laboratory techniques for their manufacture. His patented inventions are administered to millions worldwide in routine vaccination programmes. For this accomplishment, the European Patent Office (EPO) honoured Rappuoli with the 2017 European Inventor Award in the "Lifetime Achievement" category, one of five award categories, at a ceremony held today in Venice.
"Rino Rappuoli's innovative vaccinations and techniques have made the world a safer place," said EPO President Benoît Battistelli. "His genomics-based vaccines have saved millions of lives around the world. They have vanquished several diseases and created a new school of vaccine design."
The award ceremony at the Arsenale di Venezia was attended by some 600 guests from the areas of politics, business, intellectual property and science, and opened by the EPO President together with Carlo Calenda, Italy's Minister of Economic Development.
The award, now in its 12th year, is presented annually by the EPO to distinguish outstanding inventors from Europe and around the world who have made an exceptional contribution to social development, technological progress and economic growth. The winners were chosen by an independent international jury from a pool of more than 450 individuals and teams of inventors put forward for this year's award.
In the 1990s Rappuoli and his team completely changed the way vaccines were developed.
Before his inventions, vaccine design had followed a blueprint established by French microbiologist Louis Pasteur in the 1880s: doctors inject patients with "weakened" versions of infectious organisms, allowing the immune system to prepare a defence. However, the immune system is "blind" to many infections such as the bacteria behind meningitis - a serious illness affecting the brain. Changing the paradigm, Rappuoli applied genetic engineering to create hybrids between bacterial DNA and proteins to attract the immune system's attention. It was a watershed. When the first "conjugate vaccine" against whooping cough became standard in Italy in 1993, the disease was eradicated within two years. The same happened when Rappuoli's meningitis C vaccine, for which he tapped genome pioneer Craig Venter to DNA-sequence bacteria, became part of the UK's immunisation scheme. The underlying process of "reverse vaccinology" forever changed vaccination design. "Vaccines are now no longer based on grown agents, but are designed on the computer using genomics," says Rappuoli. He made history by developing and patenting the first-ever vaccines for each strand of meningococcal meningitis - namely A, B, C, Y and W-135 - that have been approved world-wide.
Rappuoli's life's work has enabled him to leave a mark. "I spent most of my life working in company-owned research institutes, because there you can go beyond the paper and translate your discovery into real products that can have an impact on people," he says. Patented inventions such as his anti-meningitis B vaccine Bexsero are used worldwide, generating annual sales of approximately EUR 465 million for its license holders. Their underlying laboratory techniques, for which Rappuoli holds around 150 granted and pending European patent families, have also unlocked new fields of scientific development. Meanwhile, Rappuoli has also set up a global health institute devoted to developing vaccines for which there is no market, but for which there is a huge medical need in low-income countries. Through the institute, the patents, know-how and technology can be made available free-of-charge: "With vaccines, life expectancy can be increased and the gap between rich and poor reduced," he says.
One of the most influential careers in microbiology was inspired by the devastating effects of pandemic infections. The unfinished cathedral wall in his native Siena - a remnant of the year 1348, when the "Black Death" ravaged the city - set Rappuoli on his course: "Such a thing should never happen again, so I decided to devote my entire life to the development of vaccines." Over the years, Rappuoli's contributions have been recognised with the highest honours in the field of medicine, including the Italian Gold Medal for Public Healthcare. But his work is never finished. As the Chief Scientist at global pharmaceutical manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Vaccines, Rappuoli is preparing vaccines against Respiratory Syncytial virus, Cytomegalovirus and other potentially devastating infections: "I believe there is no better job in the world," the microbiologist says.
Note to editors: availability of AV and photo materials on 15 June 2017
Director External Communication