Ge­of­frey Schild obit­u­ary

The Guardian Australia - - Science - John Ox­ford

The mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist Ge­of­frey Schild, who has died aged 82, did much to help halt the spread of in­fluenza, po­lio and Aids. It was he who pro­posed the con­cept of a uni­ver­sal flu vac­cine, a goal still sought today.

In 1969, two years af­ter join­ing the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion’s in­fluenza cen­tre, based at the Na­tional In­sti­tute for Med­i­cal Re­search in Mill Hill, north Lon­don, Ge­of­frey was ap­pointed its di­rec­tor. He wanted to see how the need for a new in­fluenza vac­cine each year could be avoided.

The need to re­new vac­cines arose be­cause the in­fluenza virus con­tains out­side spike pro­teins that are con­stantly evolv­ing. Ge­of­frey con­cen­trated on the virus pro­teins in the in­ter­nal core of the virus. He found that these in­ter­nal pro­teins were not only shared by all hu­man in­fluenza viruses, but by in­fluenza viruses found in pigs and birds. This pointed to the pos­si­bil­ity of a uni­ver­sal in­fluenza vac­cine that could be active against new, emerg­ing viruses, in­clud­ing those from an­i­mal sources, thus elim­i­nat­ing the need for an­nual change.

Bet­ter still, in­fluenza vac­cine could be stock­piled in case of an epi­demic. It hap­pens that the first wide­spread hu­man test­ing of a uni­ver­sal vac­cine has just started, in a trial aim­ing to in­volve 500 peo­ple aged 65 and over in Berk­shire and Ox­ford­shire this win­ter.

In 1975 Ge­of­frey be­came head of the vi­ral prod­ucts di­vi­sion at the Na­tional In­sti­tute for Bi­o­log­i­cal Stan­dards and Con­trol (NIBSC) in Hamp­stead, north Lon­don. There he fo­cused his ef­forts, along­side the vi­rol­o­gist John Wood, on stan­dar­d­is­ing con­ven­tional in­fluenza vac­cines to en­sure that, when man­u­fac­tured, they would al­ways con­tain the same quan­tity of in­fluenza pro­tein. The WHO quickly iden­ti­fied this as a break­through, and by 1978 Ge­of­frey’s method of stan­dar­d­is­ing vac­cines was made oblig­a­tory for all new in­fluenza vac­cines around the world.

On be­ing ap­pointed the di­rec­tor of NIBSC in 1985, Ge­of­frey set up a po­lio re­search group. At the time, chil­dren were be­ing given live po­lio vac­cine. Ge­of­frey’s team fol­lowed what hap­pened when chil­dren were given the po­lio virus to swal­low. He re­alised that live po­lio virus could oc­ca­sion­ally mu­tate and be­come vir­u­lent again. Though it was rare, it did hap­pen. Thanks to the team’s work, live po­lio vac­cine is no longer in use.

In this pe­riod, too, when the Aids cri­sis first broke, Ge­of­frey was given the task of di­rect­ing the Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil’s (MRC) Aids pro­gramme in Bri­tain, bring­ing to­gether medics and sci­en­tists from the UK, the US and the rest of the EU to develop vac­cines for the pre­ven­tion of Aids, and drugs for the treat­ment of HIV in­fec­tion. Ge­of­frey’s aim was to get work on Aids mov­ing quickly and ef­fi­ciently. He di­vided teams into two arms: the strate­gic pro­gramme, which worked on the na­ture of Aids and its treat­ment, as well as mon­i­tor­ing the spread of HIV, and the sec­ond arm, which fo­cused on de­vel­op­ing drugs and vac­cines.

The pro­gramme had its de­trac­tors: the MRC was crit­i­cised for re­peat­ing

vac­cine ex­per­i­ments in mon­keys that had al­ready been done in the US, for ex­am­ple. But it also had suc­cesses.

The An­glo-French Con­corde trial, spon­sored by the MRC and a French re­search agency, was the big­gest clin­i­cal trial of the drug AZT ever con­ducted. It showed that the drug could not de­lay the on­set of Aids in HIV-pos­i­tive peo­ple or in­crease their life ex­pectancy. The re­sults were pub­lished in the Lancet and made head­lines world­wide. None­the­less, this neg­a­tive re­sult stim­u­lated re­searchers else­where to dis­cover three new classes of anti-Aids drugs that have since trans­formed the clin­i­cal man­age­ment of peo­ple with Aids.

The job of di­rect­ing multi­na­tional re­searchers could be tu­mul­tuous. Ge­of­frey’s tech­nique when faced with a room full of squab­bling sci­en­tists was to wink, sur­rep­ti­tiously. He had such an open face and such a smiley one; it al­ways worked.

Born in Sh­effield, Ge­of­frey was one of four chil­dren of Christo­pher Schild, a trav­el­ling sales­man, and his wife, Ge­orgina (nee Kirby). He went to High Storrs gram­mar school in Sh­effield and then Read­ing Univer­sity, where he com­pleted a de­gree in mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy in 1958.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, Ge­of­frey worked for the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany John­son amp; John­son for two years, then de­cided to do a PhD, at Sh­effield Univer­sity, fo­cus­ing on the com­mon cold virus.

We met at Lodge Moor hospi­tal, where I was also study­ing for a PhD, and our su­per­vi­sor, Sir Charles Stu­art-Har­ris, had set up a re­search group in vi­rol­ogy as part of the univer­sity’s med­i­cal school. We fo­cused on grow­ing viruses. Some­times it would all go wrong and Ge­of­frey would say: “Just chuck it out and start again.” His at­ti­tude to ev­ery­thing was “never give up”.

It was also at Lodge Moor that Ge­of­frey met Tora Mad­land, a Nor­we­gian phar­ma­cist and Bri­tish Coun­cil scholar. Ge­of­frey and Tora were mar­ried in 1961.His re­search con­tin­ued in Sh­effield for another six years.

In 1993 Ge­of­frey was ap­pointed CBE, and nine years later he re­tired from the NIBSC. Part of his legacy there is the li­brary of care­fully grown viruses that he helped set up so that sci­en­tists around the world could ac­cess the high-qual­ity spec­i­mens needed for their re­search.

He was also au­thor of at least 300 sci­en­tific pa­pers. One of the most im­por­tant, co-au­thored with the vi­rol­o­gist John Ske­hel, in­tro­duced a new sys­tem for clas­si­fy­ing the thou­sands of in­fluenza strains iso­lated in an­i­mals and hu­mans. The clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem is still in use by WHO lab­o­ra­to­ries today.

Ge­of­frey is sur­vived by Tora, their three chil­dren, Oys­tein, In­grid and Peter, and two grand­chil­dren.

•Ge­of­frey Christo­pher Schild, mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist, born 28 Novem­ber 1935; died 3 Au­gust 2017

Ge­of­frey Schild’s lead­er­ship of some­times frac­tious multi­na­tional re­search into Aids and HIV was helped by his open face and smile

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