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Great British bioscience pioneers – Professor John Anderson

Great British Bioscience Pioneers – Professor John Anderson - 27 March 2014. The Pirbright Institute
Highlights from: 20 years of bioscience

Professor John Anderson MBE is a former Head of Laboratory and Head of the UN FAO Reference Laboratory for Rinderpest at The Pirbright Institute. He was instrumental in the eradication of this 'cattle plague' through the Global Rinderpest Eradication Campaign, which concluded successfully in 2011, making history as the first animal virus to be wiped out worldwide. He is a visiting professor at the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology, Tanzania.

In the field in Tanzania. John Anderson
In the field in Tanzania. Image: John Anderson

How did your bioscience career first begin?

I joined the Animal Virus Research Institute (now The Pirbright Institute) in 1968 at the end of a major UK foot-and-mouth (FMD) outbreak. I was rapidly instructed in the complement fixation test (CFT) for FMD typing and left to my own devices, everyone being shattered from the two-year effort to eradicate the disease from the UK.

I have always been a 'problem solver' and the CFT was ideally suited to my talents – I sometimes think it was more of an art than a science. In 1971, I was seconded to Kenya to work on FMD in wildlife and carrier status in local cattle populations following vaccination. This gave me a true understanding of the real impact of FMD on subsistence farmers and the need to develop appropriate technology.

When I returned to Pirbright in 1977, I worked with Helio Pereira to produce the first monoclonal antibodies against FMD.

John Anderson in the lab. Image: The Pirbright Institute
John Anderson in the lab.
Image: The Pirbright Institute

What are you working on now?

I retired as Head of Pirbright Laboratory in 2008 but I am still passionate about capturing the lessons learnt from the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme and applying them to other diseases, particularly the related peste des petits ruminants virus. I continue to advise labs in developing countries on how to improve standards etc.

What advances have you seen in your chosen field in the last 20 years?

As a serologist for over 40 years I have seen Enzyme Linked Immuno-Sorbent Assays (ELISAs) have a major impact. Allied with monoclonal antibodies and defined antigens, such as expressed proteins and synthetic peptides, they offer major opportunities for highly specific diagnostics.

Molecular techniques have progressed rapidly from PCR to smart-PCR and LAMP. Multifunctional arrays etc are now the way forward, particularly for differential diagnosis, which is so essential in the final stages of eradication programmes.

How has BBSRC supported you throughout your career?

BBSRC and previously Defra, MAFF and also ODA (DFID) gave me the freedom to 'dabble' or experiment to solve major problems. This may now be called 'seed corn funding' but is essential to maintain the UK's impact on major issues.

I would like to add that none of this would have been possible without the technical input and support of Jayne Thevasagayam, Mandy Corteyn, Robin Butcher and Debi Gibson.

What are the five key bioscience milestones that you've been part of and when did these occur?

1980: Production of rinderpest-specific monoclonal antibodies with a completely defined antigenic target, totally homogenous to allow absolute standardisation between labs throughout the world

1980s onwards: Developed ELISAs for rinderpest, which offered the opportunity to rapidly diagnose the disease without the use of tissue culture isolation. I had the excitement of developing assays, the challenge of converting them into robust quality-controlled kits, the fun of transferring the technology to laboratories all over the world and the pride in knowing they played a major part in the global eradication of a major disease

1990 onwards: PCR and sequencing for rinderpest viruses were developed by my colleague Professor Tom Barrett as part of our remit as the FAO World Reference Laboratory for Morbilliviruses. This facilitated molecular characterisation of virus strains and assisted in tracing the origins of outbreaks and furthered our understanding of the epidemiology of the virus

1999: Anke Bruning and I developed a lateral flow device for the rapid diagnosis of rinderpest in the field. Results could be obtained from an eye-swab within five minutes. This empowered field veterinarians to report positive cases and helped identify the last remaining foci of infection in Pakistan

Throughout: philosophy for high impact research. If you don't encourage, support and enable synergy between pure and applied research you may end up with some prestigious papers but still have no real impact on world problems. It is the adoption and application of appropriate biotechnology that is important, not the science per se. For too long we thought only of controlling diseases, never dreaming of eradication – but with rinderpest we did just that!