The VRS story – our Triple-A-COAT virology experts
Virology Research Services Ltd (VRS) is the Triple-A-COAT partner responsible for testing the antiviral activity of our coatings. Earlier this year the company moved into its new premises in Kent, in south-east England.
We were interested to find out more about the company and the world of antiviral research. VRS co-founder and co-director Dr Michela Mazzon kindly agreed to answer a few of our questions!
What kind of work do you do at VRS?
VRS is a Contract Research Organisation (CRO) performing preclinical R&D at the early stages of virus research. This includes testing of antiviral compounds and vaccines, and antiviral materials. We have contracts with academic and industrial customers, including universities, pharmaceutical and biotech companies. VRS works with a wide range of assays and viruses, including many important human pathogens such as HCMV, influenza, Sars-CoV-2, RSV, common cold viruses, and emerging viruses like dengue and Zika viruses.
As a CRO we prioritize internal R&D efforts, specifically focused on assay development and optimization, as part of our commitment to advancing our bespoke approach.
How did the company start?
The business started in 2017. At that time I was a post-doctoral scientist, working in antivirals discovery at University College London. My co-founder Chiara Mencarelli and I started to get requests from outside the university to do antiviral testing and other virus research tasks. We realised that there was an opportunity here for a new company to provide virus research services commercially. There is a real need in the market for external CRO support in virus research, as few researchers and companies have access to specialist contained lab facilities, as well as the special knowledge needed.
First, we worked through UCL Consultants a scheme run by University College London, allowing us to do contract research in the university labs, in our spare time. That really helped us de-risk the business and be sure it was going to work. At the end of 2018 we incorporated VRS and by March 2020 we were able to start working full time in the company. We made our first move off-campus to the science park established at the previous Pfizer site in Kent. At the end of 2022 we moved to our own labs at Kent Science Park.
How are you finding the new VRS premises in Kent? What advantages does this give you?
We have now built our own labs at Kent Science Park, where we have our own Containment Level-2 and -3 facilities, so we can perform our full range of operations at one location. A CL-3 lab is a valuable asset that is rarely found within companies (such labs are typically limited to Universities and large research institutions). This specialized facility provides VRS with the necessary safety and security measures to effectively handle higher-risk viruses. Being based outside of London has some advantages for us, while its still easy to travel here from London. Our campus has its own great scientific community, and we also appreciate the fresh air and very nice scenery!
VRS has a blog on its website where you go into some detail about methods you use for testing antiviral activity. What motivates this open approach?
We have run this blog on our website since starting VRS. We consider ourselves firstly as scientists working in virus research, and the blog communicates our philosophy as active, troubleshooting scientists. It works at two levels, firstly as a general overview or introduction to virology, but also including advanced technical details for researchers that want to know more. In particular, we want to show to our customers that as scientists we know about the challenges of virus research, and the technical issues or considerations with various assays.
How is the field of antiviral materials and antiviral testing developing, in general?
Before 2020, we already knew that a viral pandemic would happen again some time. COVID-19 dramatically increased awareness of the dangers of viruses to people and society in general. There now is a lot more energy in antiviral research, with researchers working on novel, broad spectrum antiviral drugs. There is new interest in the fact that viruses can survive on surfaces for extended periods of time. Viruses are often hard to get rid of. It’s important that solutions are effective, but also safe for humans.
How is VRS finding participation in the Triple-A-COAT project so far?
It’s an exciting project, and its very nice that we have four years to really work together. So far in the project meetings I’ve been really impressed at the breadth of expertise of different partners, covering different areas. Not just in developing the antiviral agents but also expertise in nanocellulose and the production and testing of the coatings. It’s an opportunity for VRS to get more into the world of coatings and materials, and a great collaboration for us.