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Anna-Lise Williamson

Professor of Virology, University of Cape Town

Anna-Lise Williamson was awarded her Ph.D. in 1985 from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her training is in virology and vaccinology. She has worked in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town (UCT) since 1987, where she was promoted to full professor in 2004. In 2008 she was awarded a South African Research Initiative Research Chair in Vaccinology. She is one of the founding members of UCT's Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, which is generally regarded as the best institute in Africa for infectious disease research. Her laboratory has successfully tested novel vaccines against papillomaviruses, Rift Valley fever virus, rotavirus and rabies virus in animal challenge models. These vaccines were based on recombinant Bacille Calmette Guerin or recombinant poxviruses as vaccine vectors. In collaboration with Professor Ed Rybicki (UCT), also an ISV member, subunit vaccines to HPV and HIV based on production in tobacco or insect cell systems were developed and tested in mice, rabbits or non-human primates. 

On the basis of this expertise, research into the development of HIV vaccines was initiated under the auspices of the South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI), with the long-term goal of moving candidate HIV vaccines through the vaccine development pipeline from basic research to clinical trials. The pipeline to get vaccines from concept to clinical trials is complex, requiring many different sets of expertise and major funding support. One of her most significant achievements was to direct the vaccine development group that got two locally-developed HIV vaccines into clinical trials. These are the only HIV vaccine candidates developed in Africa to go into human clinical trials. Their role was vaccine design and construction, as well as generation of pre-clinical data to support regulatory documentation, including vaccine stability assays and immunogenicity in mice and non-human primates. This was funded by SAAVI and the NIH, which was crucial to the success of the project as it enabled a critical mass of people to participate in the project with the flexibility to respond to the challenges of the project. The two candidate HIV vaccines, SAAVI DNA C2 and SAAVI MVA-C, have successfully been taken from basic research concepts through to Phase 1 clinical trial, which required the establishment of a sophisticated laboratory infrastructure and skill-set for the preclinical part of the programme, and the exploitation of various networks and of different sets of expertise. Once the vaccines were ready for Phase 1 clinical trials, the clinical teams under Professor Glenda Gray and Professor Gavin Churchyard took over with funding from HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) and the SA MRC. This represents a unique example of a multidisciplinary research effort taking a project from the basic concept through to clinical trial in Africa. It shows that academic institutions in South Africa have the capacity to do these projects, and to contribute meaningfully to the global initiative to make a successful prophylactic HIV vaccine.

Present projects include novel HIV vaccines and recombinant veterinary vaccines based on lumpy skin disease virus. She is also an expert on human papillomavirus, and has participated in national committees on the introduction of HPV vaccine in South Africa, as well as serving as a consultant for the WHO. She is actively involved in training post-graduate students and has over 200 peer reviewed publications.

Prof. Williamson served as a member of the ISV Board for two years and was elected a Fellow of ISV in 2019.

ISV Fellow of the Month
South Africa