The pioneer of Vietnam’s vaccine production

Tuesday, 2017-04-11 09:23:45
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Prof. Dr. Hoang Thuy Nguyen. (Credit: NDO)
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NDO – At the age of 88, twice a week on his wheelchair, Prof. Dr. Hoang Thuy Nguyen still goes to work at the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology (NIHE). Over the last 60 years, he has always been concerned about finding new and effective vaccines to protect the health of people, especially children.

The father of polio vaccine

Prof. Dr. Nguyen led us to visit a factory of the Company for Vaccine and Biological Production No.1 (VABIOTECH) under the Ministry of Health. When serving as Director of NIHE, he came knocking on the door of relevant partners to build VABIOTECH. He said there must be modern facilities to produce good vaccines. In the shortage, Dr. Nguyen and his colleagues produced the first vaccines that laid the foundation for the Vietnamese vaccine industry.

It was the 1957-1959 period, as the polio epidemic increased rapidly with high number of fatalities. When the former Soviet Union successfully tested polio vaccines, Uncle Ho told Prime Minister Pham Van Dong to contact the USSR to help Vietnam train its own staff to produce polio vaccines. Against the backdrop of an emergency situation, Prof. Dr. Nguyen was sent to the Soviet Union by the Ministry of Health to receive technology transfer for production of oral polio vaccine called Sabin.

After three months, he returned to Vietnam and set up a team of scientists to develop locally made vaccines. In the nation’s difficult conditions at that time, PM Pham Van Dong granted him 2,000 pounds for research. In 1962, together with his colleagues, Prof. Dr. Nguyen produced two million doses of the Sabin vaccine through the technology of renal cell transplantation, which surprised world-class scientists who had co-sponsored Vietnam in the medical field.

From this important success, new scientific elements with far-sighted vision have been implanted in the field of vaccine production. By 1980, Sabin vaccine was introduced into the expanded immunisation programme. As a result, the rate of morbidity and mortality from polio decreased significantly with no more outbreaks. Persisting for 40 years, until 2000, Vietnam successfully eliminated polio, while across the world, it is expected that until 2018 this disease can be completely eliminated.

In addition to the polio vaccine, Prof. Dr. Nguyen and his colleagues successfully produced the vaccine for Japanese encephalitis as well as the vaccine for hepatitis B vaccine based on the most advanced technologies from Russia, the US and Japan. These vaccines have been included in the expanded vaccination programme, helping millions of Vietnamese children avoid serious sequelae and disabilities, as well as preventing dangerous diseases caused by viruses and saving tens of billions of VND per year for the State budget.

He said that hepatitis B vaccine is the NIHE’s pride. In the 1990s, the first-generation hepatitis B vaccine was born from human plasma and was included in the expanded immunisation programme. Ten years later, with maturity in research thinking and advanced production technologies, he and his team mastered the technology of recombinant hepatitis B vaccine production.

Always mindful of putting health benefits of people above all, he is very concerned when a new disease occurs. When the first cases of H5N1 virus appeared in the country, amidst complicated situation of influenza A/H5N1 in the world, he suggested research on production of H5N1 vaccine to prevent and combat this dangerous disease.

Prof. Dr. Nguyen convinced foreign colleagues to transfer reverse genetics technology and sent two young Vietnamese scientists to Tokyo, Japan for training. As a result, Vietnamese scientists have used their own technologies to produce vaccines against H5N1. So far, the vaccine has been launched and clinical trials on humans have been successful.

Dedicating with high enthusiasm

When awarded by the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology the Tran Dai Nghia Award for the project "Applying advanced technologies to produce vaccines for human diseases", Prof. Dr. Hoang Thuy Nguyen recalled emotional memories and sentiment on his friend and colleague, late Prof. Dr. Dang Duc Trach. They attended college together and worked together at the NIHE. One was a bacteriologist, one a virologist, both devoted without fatigue to the prevention and combat of critical infectious diseases.

Prof. Dr. Nguyen said, he was surprised to receive the Tran Dai Nghia Award. It was a meaningful encouragement, reminding him to try harder despite his age to accompany younger generations of scientists to produce more new effective vaccines. He expressed hope that in 2017, Vietnam would produce six-in-one synergistic vaccine and Zika vaccine in the laboratory.

When being asked: How could he gain confidence in scientific research? He said: "If there is passion then there will be confidence. If you work with all your passion, you will have more strength. That is the lesson of my scientific life." It is passion that helps him overcome all the difficulties and gives him more motivation to study.

Dr. Nguyen places much hope in young generations. He has created favourable conditions for young scientists to have opportunity to go abroad and learn about reverse genetics technology. He has participated in training hundreds of masters and PhDs and many of them now assume important positions at the NIHE. He said the Zika vaccine project will be given to a young scientist who is just over 30 years old.

Dr. Nguyen Anh Tuan, who is responsible for the study and production of the Japanese encephalitis vaccine at VABIOTECH said: "Prof. Dr. Hoang Thuy Nguyen is a true scientist. He is admired and respected not only in the country but also across the world."

Prof. Dr. Hoang Thuy Nguyen, sitting on his wheelchair at the VABIOTECH campus and busy working with colleagues, strongly impresses us. He is truly a bright example in the study and follow-up of President Ho Chi Minh’s thoughts, morals, and style, urging us to live and work better.

By Hanh Nguyen