Cancer drugs from periwinkles & Producing vaccines in plants.

Two groups conducting ground breaking research within the John Innes Centre’s Biological Chemistry department are; Sarah O’Connor and George Lomonossoff’s teams.
Sarah’s team works towards harnessing the metabolic power of plants, creating opportunities to facilitate the production of plant molecules that have pharmaceutical value. This includes the study of the production of vinblastine, a cancer fighting drug, naturally produced by the Madagascan periwinkle (Catharanthus Roseus).
George’s team are at the forefront of scientific research into the production of novel vaccines, including the cultivation of virus like particles by plants.
These particles are non-infectious as they don’t contain the nucleic acid of an active virus particle, but can be used as a powerful immune stimulator and therefore as vaccines. This new system offers a quicker and cheaper way to culture vaccines for human viruses, such as polio and zika.
For this drawing I chose to integrate these two areas of research, in order to include both in my list of six. Cancer fighting research in particular is close to my heart, as it is too many people outside of science, because I have a son who as a child, had several treatments for cancer.

I first met Sarah O’Connor’s team in June, when I met Lorenzo and Scott as they worked in the lab. Both were really pleasant, helpful and wiling to be part of the project. Lorenzo told me that the special thing about their team was that they were musical, Scott even keeps a guitar in his office. On other occasions when meeting members of the team they have all confessed to having a musical skill.

Both Sarah and George, like many of the team leaders, spend much of their time reading and writing papers and applying for grants –not very exciting as far as drawings of world-leading scientists are concerned, but these people are key to their teams. Many of Sarah’s team had the ambition to work with her specifically and had travelled from all over the world to Norwich and to the John Innes Centre to do so.

Sarah at work

Sarah working in her office, surrounded by papers


When I first met George I was greeted by a round, jolly man in his 60’s, wearing a short sleeved striped rugby top and braces, to hold his trousers up. He was unlike any of the other scientists I’d met; boyish, jolly, extremely easy to chat to and very bright. We discovered we had a connection with Cecilia Scurfield, who I drew for my project ‘I’m not Dead Yet’ in 2013.

George’s story is a particularly interesting one:

Given my British accent, it often surprises people to learn that I was actually born in Montreal, Canada and am the son of a Canadian mother and a Russian (naturalised British) father.
When my father died (before I was born), my mother brought the family to the UK, where we first lived in London before moving to Cambridge where my Russian Grandmother (Raisa) lived. When we moved there we lived in a house, (9 Adam’s Rd) owned by Dr Alice Roughton (Cecilia Scurfield’s Auntie, Cecelia grew up next to George) who was a noted social reformer.
Prior to WWII Dr Roughton had opened her house to refugees fleeing Nazi persecution and continued this tradition after the war, with many of the refugees then being from Eastern Europe. Thus, I got to mix with a wide variety of people from different backgrounds and interests and one of my main memories of my childhood there was the constant discussions of politics and science – often quite vehement and in a variety of accents.’

I was looking for an opportunity to draw George in action, hopefully being able to show his character rather than just being sat in front of his computer. I heard that he was going to do a talk as part of the Pint of Science events (

I went along with my project intern Sami. The event was at the York Tavern, I had no idea what to expect apart from a pint of beer and talk about science. It was so much more, even for me, with zero understanding or particular interest in science, it was wonderfully entertaining and relaxed.

With the feel of a pub quiz; the seating was arranged to face a projection screen and questionnaires were handed out. With the addition of a science element and the added entertainment of some very jolly real life scientists telling you what they do. There was also some comedy thrown in.

During the event, we had to make molecules out of pipe cleaners and do a science sketch on a beer mat – I of course did one of George. There were prizes for winners too, this was a wonderful way for a novice like me to learn, with a pint in hand, and surrounded by enthusiastic young people I learnt that some of the first victims of Polio were visitors to Norwich’s Earlham Park.

What really strikes me about the scientific community is the sense of shared excitement about learning and discovery. It’s a bit like life…much of the day to day stuff i.e. shopping and cleaning, lab work can be a bit repetitive and a bit of a chore at times, but then something happens, the birth of a child, a marriage, the discovery of a new vaccine, molecule, antibiotic, something new and exciting that brings change and the day to day stuff is all worth it.

One of the best things about the Pint of Science event was Roger Castells-Graells. I never realised that scientists were funny. Shame on me! Roger’s talk could have been a show at the Edinburgh festival. After seeing him perform I thought I must include him in the drawing. I arranged to meet him at the John Innes Centre, he arrived with a big smile and a box full of colourful plastic 3D models of molecules and virus structures.

Roger said he was very busy, ‘tonight I am going to infiltrate 30 plants’ – which sounds to me like something James Bond might say. Here is Roger talking about the production of virus-like particles in plants:

Roger studied in his home town of Barcelona and told me that since he was a child he loved plants;

The first house we lived in had an interior garden with glass. My mother said when I was leaning to walk I was sticking my head inside the glass.I liked watching plants and, as with all my family like plants and gardening. I did my undergraduate in bio technology and then did an internship in plant resistance to pathogens at Munich age 21.

I went to Cambridge on a three day symposium, the speaker was a man called David Balcom, a few days before the event I had written him an email, telling him – I was interested in talking to him. I had thought I would go traveling after I had graduated, perhaps working in different labs. I had a glimpse of what David Balcom was doing working with RNA in plants. I talked with David about the PhD rotation program and thought that was a cool idea, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do but I wanted to work with plants. I applied and got it.

During the first weeks of the PhD Rotation you get exposed to different labs and departments. One of mine was with George Lomonossoff, he was so nice and friendly I had a good feeling. I felt enthusiastic and I fell in love with viruses.

George had lots of ideas and l learnt something new every day. George is super smart and super relaxed, that’s why he does so many nice things……When they explained to me about infiltrating the leaf of a plant to make a vaccine, I couldn’t believe such a thing was possible’.

I ask Roger where he sees himself in 10 years’ time, he replied ‘either up in space, or on the earth’, he is interested in going up into space and discovering what is up there. He is only 23 so he has plenty of time to train to be an astronaut.

Meeting George’s team I note that it is a very international group, with Russian, Spanish, German, Dutch, Thai, British and French members.

George's group meeting

George’s meeting, first a presentation, then….

George's meeting 2

homemade cakes, sweets,chocolate and coffee,

George's meeting 3

and analysis and postmortem on the research findings and the next steps


The table is full of homemade cakes (a feature at the John Innes Centre), chocolate and sweets, contributions from all. George is like the groups best grandad.

Daniel also appears in my drawing, but he had to be speedily photographed as time was running out for me on the last two drawings; this one and the Search for Anti biotics.

Daniel loves to play American football and was sporting a leg brace from a complicated fracture, in action on the field.

Drugs:vaccines Rough drawing

rough for the drawing, all are happy with it!

mapping out the drawing

lots of elements to squeeze in; mapping out the drawing.

drugs&vaccs studio 2

George is looking good, I am enjoying the colour!

drugs:vacs studio 3

still trying to work out placement of visuals from these research areas, I want to keep colours restricted

Vaccines_drugs from plants_2 copy 4

after much re-drawing of George’s face and Sarah’s hands the drawing is finally finished




Project Leader – Biological Chemistry

Sarah at work

Sarah working in her office, surrounded by papers

Born in New York, Sarah was a good student and went to university in Chicago. Her father was a chemistry lecturer and her mother, a retired nurse.

Although influenced by her father being a chemistry lecturer, Sarah always had an interest in science. She is now a project leader of a research group in plant biochemistry.

For as long as I can remember I loved science. There are several chemists in my family and they inspired me”





Project Leader – Biological Chemistry

George was born in Montreal, Canada, to a Canadian mother and Russian father. Following the death of his father, his mother moved the family to England, initially London and then to Cambridge where his Russian grandmother lived.

It was there that he lived in the house of a noted social reformer, who had opened her house to refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. During this time, he recalls mixing with a wide variety of people from an array different backgrounds and being privy to many political and scientific discussions.

With his family having an engineering background, he was exposed to science early on, with his first scientific interest being in astronomy. George attended the Cambridge High School for boys, previously attended by Syd Barret and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. As the institution that formed the model for the school in Pink Floyds album “The Wall”, George humorously states that he can identify the teacher that was told to “leave them kids alone”. George didn’t take school too seriously until sixth form and describes his memories of school being more akin to those described in “Baggy Trousers” by Madness.

Outside of his work in science, he has an interest in history, particularly from the 19th century onwards.

“For a time we lived in a house full of refugees fleeing Nazi or communist persecution. One of my main memories was the constant discussions of politics and science – often quite vehement and in a variety of accents!”



Postdoctoral Scientist

Scott in the lab

Scott in the lab

Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, Scott always had an interest in science. He and his family were fortunate enough to enjoy many vacations to their holiday cottage, where his parents maximised his exposure to nature.

Both his parents were teachers and Scott claims he probably drove his own teachers crazy as he was “bored and impatient for the majority” of his school years. His parents introduced him to science at a young age; there were always science texts in the house and they frequently explored nature together.

Scott states he has always been interested in the larger scope questions – “are we alone in the universe” and “how did it all start”.

Aside from science Scott’s passions include sports, nature, music, art, psychology and human performance.

My parents introduced me to science at a young age, there were always science texts at home. We frequently explored nature”



Postdoctoral Scientist

Initially born in Reutlingen Germany, Daniel and his family later moved to the Island of Usedom, Germany. Both his brothers went on to follow his parents into the health sector, working as nurses.

Daniel refers to himself as a somewhat mediocre student at high school, although he had a good rapport with his teachers he paid little attention to subjects he found boring. He claims that maths, chemistry and physics were his least favourite subjects. He later came to particularly enjoy biology as it was the most “practical” and “made sense” to him, unlike chemistry.

One Christmas, Daniel’s uncle who was a scientist, gifted him a light microscope. Using this he tried to investigate everything. After studying agriculture his interest was sparked by agro-biotechnology and since then he has been driven towards a career in science.

Aside from science Daniel has long enjoyed American football, both playing and strategy researching.

My uncle gave me a light microscope for Christmas … I literally tried to microscope everything which was too slow to escape.”



Research Assistant

Lorenzo in the lab

Lorenzo in the lab

Lorenzo grew up in small village on the mountains of Abruzzo, in central Italy. His father had a small building company, whilst his mother worked as a seamstress. Both were born during the Second World War and grew up in poor families, receiving little education. They hoped that Lorenzo and his sister could have a better start and a better education.

Fascinated by science as a child, he and his friends would build “laboratories” in their friend’s garage and conduct science experiments using things they had collected from the local junkyard. Such experiments included making a Volta’s battery, microphones from headphones and alcohol propelled rockets.

He started his academic life as an “average” student, receiving good grades but being more interested in having fun. Lorenzo went on to gain an honours degree in biology after discovering a real interest and enjoyment in studying it at university.

Lorenzo has a love for music and has played the saxophone and clarinet since the age of ten. He also has a music degree. Fishing in mountain streams and lakes is also a passion of his.

We started a “lab” in one of my friend’s garage. We made many interesting (and sometimes very dangerous) experiments……microphones from headphones and alcohol propelled rockets.”



Research Student


Currently a PhD student at the John Innes Centre, Roger grew up near Barcelona, Spain. His parents both studied computer science at university and brought their son a microscope when he was young, with which he “discovered the microscopic world”.

As a young child, Roger enjoyed gardening and going mushroom foraging in the mountains, both skills he learnt from his grandparents. His love of plants was apparent from an early age, with his mum recalling him putting his head into the conservatory garden to watch the plants grow as soon as he could walk. He also enjoyed the study of insects and kept an aquarium, turtles and a water dragon.

Roger enjoyed school and at the age of sixteen he attended a summer science camp, where he developed his love of science research among like-minded people and decided he wanted to become a scientist. Having been inspired at a symposium, Roger applied for a PhD position, it was during this time that he came across George and his team. He refers to George as being ‘nice and friendly’, he immediately had a good feeling and fell in love with viruses.

“Since I was a kid I liked to study insects and I had an aquarium, turtles and a water dragon.”



Postdoctoral Scientist

Born and raised in a small town in the Mekong River Delta, Vietnam. He and his brother were brought up by their father, a civil engineer, and mother, who was a teacher.

At school Trinh-Don admits to having been one of the better students academically but was too shy to par take in physical education or sports. Given his native countries cultural values, including the reliance upon herbal medicine and the myths surrounding the outside world, Trinh-Don wanted to understand what it was in the plants that “made people healthy or ill” and “figure out facts scientifically” instead of learning government dictated facts.

Alongside this aspiration he wanted to earn a good living, and so both he decided to pursue a career in science. Initially completing his undergraduate degree of biotechnology in Ho Chi Minh and then his PhD in biochemistry at the University of Calgary, Canada.

Trinh-Don and his wife share a young daughter and both work at the John Innes Centre. Apart from science he states that he has an interest in politics, history and religion.



Postdoctoral Scientist

With her roots originating in Moscow, Yulia is a self-confessed “city girl”. Both her parents are engineers. Being the “best in the class” at school Yulia recalls how she always wanted to study biology and enjoyed visiting science museums with her father.

Aside from her work she appreciates art, literature and visiting big cities.


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