Dax Lauwers is helping develop an HIV test for the HIV vaccine

Life Sciences

30 Mar 2020
In our series 'Pauwels people' we talk with our consultants about life as a consultant, working for Pauwels Consulting and our clients. Today, we talk to Dax Lauwers, life sciences consultant and R&D scientist at Johnson & Johnson. Over the past few months, he has been involved in the development of an accurate HIV test which would make the approval of the HIV vaccine easier.

Can you introduce yourself?

Hi, my name is Dax Lauwers, I’m 23 years old and I live together with my girlfriend in Antwerp. I am a Life Sciences consultant at Pauwels Consulting and I’m currently working on my first project as an R&D scientist at J&J.

What do you do in your spare time?

I spend a lot of my free time on the rugby field as a trainer for the 12 to 14-year-olds and as a player. This is the ideal way for me to clear my head again. Some quality time with my girlfriend or a game night with friends or family is also something I can enjoy immensely.

What did you study?

My highest degree is a professional bachelor in biochemistry. I obtained this at AP-Hogeschool in Antwerp. Before that, I followed a Technical Secondary Education in Chemistry because science has always been a passion for me!

Can you tell us more about the HIV vaccine and your HIV test?

The HIV vaccine that J&J is developing is now in phase 3. In this phase, it will be assessed whether the vaccine effectively protects against the virus. This means that a certain ‘risk group’ is vaccinated and we check whether this has an effect on the number of HIV infections in this group. However, there is an issue with the vaccine. People who are vaccinated have to deal with ‘vaccine induced seropositivity’ (VISP). This means that current serological HIV testing is unable to distinguish between an HIV-infected and a vaccinated person. With a PCR test, this is still possible, but it is expensive and not universally available (electricity required, expensive equipment and reagents,…).

The goal of our team is to develop a highly sensitive serological HIV test, as sensitive as the current tests, that is capable of distinguishing the vaccinated individuals from the infected ones. We do this by looking for specific antibodies induced by the virus, but not by the vaccine.

Within the research department, we are a small team of 2 people, but besides us, there are many other people we work with to get this done. This is an important task because without this new test there is a big chance that the vaccine will be used much less, once it is approved by the different authorities.

What does an average workday look like for you?

I spend most of the day in the lab producing new data. What does that mean concretely? I prepare the experiments, oversee the execution and process and analyse the data. Later on, the data is then visualised in graphs and I discuss the results with the project leader.

If I still have time left, I document the experiments meticulously.

What exactly does such an experiment entail? 

lifesciences consultancy biotech

We test the reactions to serum, which is a part of the blood that contains the antibodies. We use healthy samples, vaccinated samples as well as HIV-infected samples. We then put our samples, approximately one microliter (0.000,001 L), in several test tubes on a 96-well plate. Next, we add antigens. When the antigens recognize the antibodies, they bind together.

Then we perform a detection step using an enzyme. If the sample reacts to the antigen, this enzyme will cause a blue color reaction when a reagent is added. This way, we can see which antigen triggers a reaction. The aim is to find antigens to which HIV patients react, but vaccinated patients do not. At the moment, we have already found 4 promising antigens. It is sometimes the case, for example, that antigen A shows a reaction on the first 7 samples, but not on the last three and antigen B the other way around. These antigens can then possibly be combined.

“I get a lot of motivation and energy from the feeling that I’m doing something meaningful for the world, and that’s the feeling I have with this project.”

Where do you find enough samples to test?

Initially, we only test about 30 to 40 samples, a number of healthy, infected and vaccinated. If there are really promising signs, we will test a larger sample set e.g. 200 healthy and vaccinated persons and 150 HIV-patients. We will purchase these samples from HIV patients in large ‘biobanks’, while the samples from the vaccinated persons will come from the clinical trials already carried out with the vaccine. The set must, of course, be sufficiently representative, so the more, the better.

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Did you run into any issues so far, and if so, how did you deal with them?

We had some difficulties at the beginning of the year. The data was not as desired and there was something that caused a lot of variation during testing. It took some time before we found the cause of the variation and the data was again as desired.

In these times, I always try to stay positive and not let myself be influenced by any stress or frustrations. It’s not because the data is not like we want it to be, that the atmosphere has to suffer 🙂!

Is there a certain time pressure? 

We are a high priority project and we hope to have a ‘concept’ ready by the end of this year but we do not have a deadline. Preferably, we would like to have a new test on the market before the vaccine is approved.

Once the test is complete, can the vaccine be approved by the FDA?

When our ‘concept’ is ready, it will be passed on to a biotech company that will then decide in which ‘form’ or casing the test will be packaged. E.g. as a pregnancy test or as a lab test.

Once the ‘packaging’ has been determined and the test has been found to be reliable, the FDA and other government agencies can approve it and the new diagnostic product can be produced and rolled out.

How did you come into contact with Pauwels Consulting and what was your first impression?

Dax Lauwers R&D Scientist bij J&JI was actively looking for a new challenge and I had applied for an open position at Pauwels Consulting. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out, but a while later, I was contacted again by the same recruiter to inform me that he had found a vacancy that suited me perfectly. And he was right: R&D Scientist at Johnson & Johnson.

They thoroughly informed me about the project, life as a consultant and contract related issues. This gave me the feeling that Pauwels Consulting is a very professional company.

What do you like about these kinds of R&D projects?

I get a lot of motivation and energy from the feeling that I’m doing something meaningful for the world, and that’s the feeling I have with this project.

How do you like the consultancy experience so far?

This is only my first project, but I have a very positive experience as a consultant. The clients welcome you with open arms and I really have the feeling that I play an important role in the team.

What are your ambitions for the future?

After this, I would like to work again on a biochemical or immunological R&D project, so that I can gain more experience.

Do you have good advice for R&D starters?

Yes, you can always learn from your data regardless of whether it is good or bad!