Interview with Juan José Vaquero

Professor Juan José Vaquero is the ERA4TB Project Coordinator, and also leads the project’s Work Package 4 which focuses on imaging. Juan Jo is based at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) in Spain.

Could you tell us about Work Package 4 and what it does within the ERA4TB project?
Our main mission is to develop cross-cutting, translational imaging technologies for drug development, applied from single cells to tissue specimens and to in vivo (animal) subjects. Imaging is a quick, efficient technology to diagnose and assess the status of a patient infected with TB. If we want to accelerate the transition from the drug development experimentation to the effective use of the new compounds in patients, a very effective way to facilitate and speed the process could be to measure the outcomes from our unavoidable animal models with the same metrics that we will use in patients.

We aim to identify image-based, translational biomarkers that predict how effective a treatment is. Examples include seeing how well a drug enters and is distributed within cells that make up TB lesions, measuring how much cells respond when exposed to a drug, and providing non-invasive ways of seeing how animals respond to TB treatments.

Together, these translational technologies will accelerate the access of potential new treatments to the initial stages of clinical trials in humans. It will also allow us to identify biomarkers that show how well treatments are working These biomarkers can be used to identify criteria for advancing other potential treatments/treatment regimens and in future clinical trials in humans.

How long have you worked on ERA4TB?
I worked on the original funding application for ERA4TB, so since August 2018.

What was your background before joining ERA4TB?
I am Professor of Bioengineering at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M). I am Electronic Engineer trained in biomedical instrumentation. I worked for Siemens before becoming a Fogarty Fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Ramón y Cajal Fellow at Hospital Gregorio Marañón (Madrid) and visiting professor at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). My activity is focused on the development of new medical imaging technologies, and I was introduced to TB when I joined another TB focused project, the PreDiCT-TB project at the Innovative Medicines Initiative.

From your point of view, what are ERA4TB’s key achievements to date?
We have a pipeline populated with new compounds that are progressing satisfactorily. We also have two first in-human clinical trials (FTIHs) underway and several relevant scientific results have been published. If we compare our original work plan with the current state of the project, we can say that we have almost made up for the huge delay introduced by the covid-19 pandemic. All this is a clear sign of the vitality and good status of ERA4TB.

Why is the ERA4TB important?
It is a shame that in the 21st century TB remains one of the leading causes of death in the world. And events like the covid-19 pandemic have shown how fragile we are and how quickly our progress in the fight against TB is undermined when extreme situations occur. That is why working on an initiative like the IMI AMR Accelerator, besides being for me personally a very rewarding job, I believe it is a solidarity obligation of the international community.

What would you like both yourself and the ERA4TB project as a whole to achieve by the end of the project?
I wish to successfully complete the first in-human trial of a new highly effective pan-TB regimen, ready to move to Phase II research. And to consolidate, upon completion of the project, a self-sustaining resource that can maintain the activity and procedures to advance new treatments (for TB or other diseases of the developing world) as designed and implemented in ERA4TB.

What have you most enjoyed about being part of ERA4TB?
Being the Coordinator of such a large and complex project as ERA4TB is a challenge that forces me to keep moving forward and learning tirelessly, and I am also transferring the results of this learning process to all my collaborators at UC3M. And, without a doubt, I am amazed by the panel of top scientists and institutions I am working with, I feel really honoured to be able to share this project with all of them.

Who do you collaborate most with in ERA4TB?
Due to my role as Project Coordinator, I have to interact with all of the work packages within ERA4TB. Regarding the work we do in WP4, we need to collaborate very closely with the In Vivo work package (WP3) to design the protocols for our animal models. We need to work with our data and pipeline management work package (WP1) for data management of all the information generated, and with the simulation and modelling work package (WP5) to provide them with the best datasets that they can use in the modelling activities. Since working with animals is a very sensitive and respectful activity, we need the support and advice of our ethics and data privacy work package (WP9) regarding ethical considerations. And, of course, our management, outreach and sustainability work package (WP8) needs our comments and materials to complete its mission.

And finally, outside of work what do you enjoy doing?
Hiking in the mountains, water sports (open water swimming, sailing…), music and reading, tinkering with electronics and, of course, gatherings with family and friends around a table with good food, drinks and nice stories and projects to share.