A young Tasmanian scientist is working at the forefront of the race to develop a coronavirus vaccine in the United States.
Launceston born and educated Justin Bellenger, 36, has been in the US since 2010 and began working for Pfizer, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, seven years ago.
Pfizer and German biotechnology company BioNTech recently signed a $1.95 billion deal with the US government to provide 100 million doses of their coronavirus vaccine which could be available in October.
Mr Bellenger is part of a large Pfizer team, believed to be in the hundreds, working on the vaccine.
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“If we consider the timeline of getting a drug to market from its inception to be approximately 10-15 years, my role at Pfizer comprises the first 1-2 years of the project’s lifetime,” he said.
“Pfizer is working hard to help the world in the fight against COVID-19, and is leaving no stone unturned.
“We concentrate heavily on innovation and collaboration.
“Collaborative efforts between specialized groups plays such an important role in our overall success at Pfizer, so the number of colleagues impacting these projects, including the coronavirus vaccine, is very large.”
Mr Bellenger began working at Pfizer in Groton, Connecticut in 2013 working in an area known as Early Discovery where scientists provide innovative technology to solve complex problems during the inception phase of new projects.
“My primary focus is on lab automation and purification and analysis of pharmaceutical compounds during this early phase,” he said.
Mr Bellenger said he was not surprised at the COVID-19 outbreak in Tasmania and the deaths of 13 people in his home state.
“This virus is highly transmissible, which is why everyone should remain vigilant with respect to wearing a mask and practicing social distancing,” he said.
“I have been keeping abreast of the news in Australia both through the media and in talking to my parents.
“It’s unfortunate that we are seeing similar or more severe outbreaks in the US. Controlling the early spread of the virus by contact tracing seems to be the best method of defense.”
Mr Bellenger has had friends contract the virus but none have died.
“Thankfully their symptoms were not as severe as they could have been,” he said.
Mr Bellenger worries there will be more pandemics in future.
“This is certainly a possibility, but that is all the more reason to keep innovating and adapting our science so we can combat these challenges in the future,” he said.
He has previously worked on a vaccine for influenza.
“It was a quadrivalent recombinant vaccine,” Mr Bellenger said.
“Recombinant vaccines are produced differently from other vaccines. “Recombinant influenza vaccines do not use the influenza virus or chicken eggs in the manufacturing process.”
Mr Bellenger said apart from the COVID-19 vaccine, he had also worked on another exciting project – the use of CRISPR-CAS9 gene editing.
He said CRISPR-Cas9 was adapted from a naturally occurring genome editing system in bacteria.
MUSIC FIRST LOVE
When Justin Bellenger left Launceston in 2002 as an 18-year-old it was to make his mark as a rock musician in Melbourne.
He was a smart student and extremely successful sportsman but music was his great love.
He represented Tasmania in athletics in the long jump, triple jump and high jump and sprinting and played basketball at the state level.
For Mr Bellenger science had always been fun and exciting.
“Obviously I had some wonderful teachers, but things like having access to brand new science labs with state of the art equipment for the time, such as when I attended Riverside High School, was something that made science fun, exciting and just an overall positive experience.
“I always liked to do different things and keep myself busy and engaged. “I was never really badly behaved at school, more the quiet, sporty type. Music, but more specifically rock music in general, was a real creative outlet for me.
“In fact, the major decision to move to Melbourne back in 2002 was to pursue a musical career with my band at the time. I gave myself a deferral year from starting university in order to get the band off the ground in the big city.
He played guitar and was back-up singer in the band, known as Porcelain when it was in Launceston but changed its name to Sojourn.
“We were together for 15 years and supported some big names including Grinspoon, 28 Days, Cosmic Psychos, Temper Trap & Metalskool.
“We played in Los Angeles at the Viper Room, Key Club, and The Whisky a Go Go. Our last recording was produced by Mandy Kane in 2008.”
Mr Bellenger, who was also educated at Riverside Primary and later Launceston College, says he was fortunate to have devoted parents and passionate and inspirational teachers that led him to become a scientist now working on a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I feel that the areas that I gravitated to the most – whether it be music, science or sports – had me exposed to strong and influential role models who inspired me to pursue those disciplines further.
“I always found science in particular though very intriguing, particularly chemistry and biochemistry and any aspect of science that attempts to explain science on the molecular level.
“Understanding and explaining things you can’t see requires a degree of imagination.”
After the year pursuing his music, Mr Bellenger completed his Bachelors of Biotechnology at Swinburne University of Technology.
He returned to Tasmania to begin his first job at TPI Enterprises working on opiates.
“A subset of chemistry is an area called chromatography – which in simple terms is the ability to separate components from a mixture. The defining year for me was in 2005 when I studied forensic and analytical science.
“My lecturer was Dr Reginal Cross who had been at the forefront of his field for over 40 years.
“The passion he showed while teaching was contagious and sometimes scary.
“Like the moment you open his test paper to begin an exam and you realize that the questions are inconceivably difficult and your heart sinks.
“But, he strived to make everyone the best they could be.”
The yearning to continue learning is strong.
He hopes to get a Masters in Biology from Brown University, an Ivy League research university over the next couple of years.
“I think moving the family to Australia at some point later in my career is definitely a possibility,” Mr Bellenger said.
Toni and Geoffrey Bellenger are justifiably proud of their son Justin.
They’re also proud of their two other sons and daughter.
“They were lucky they went to very good schools and if you were prepared to do the work you would do well,” Mrs Bellenger a retired nurse said.
“Justin always set expectations for himself in sport and school – he had to do well and get the best marks.
“He was always a mature kid.”
Mr Bellenger recalls Justin packing his tiny car to head to Melbourne.
“He’d only just turned 18 and the car was full to the brim and I remember thinking ‘he’s our oldest (child), is he ever going to come back’.
“As the eldest he led by example and the others looked up to him and followed suit.” A self employed plumber he says he was able to juggle his children’s extra curricular activities.
Justin is sure he wouldn’t be where he is today without their love and guidance.
“My parents were wonderfully supportive of anything that I wanted to do. “Sometimes to this day I don’t know how they managed to have four kids and take all of us to the countless extracurricular activities
“You name it, cricket, athletics, football, basketball, music, education.”
Education also played a big role in their children’s lives.
Mr Bellenger tells of meeting his American wife Leslie on social media and then face-to-face when his rock band played in Los Angeles. They married nearly 10 years ago and they have a son Bryson who is five.
The family live in Cheshire, Connecticut and Leslie is a Treasurer at Lane Construction Corporation a subsidiary of WeBuild who have a presence in Australia.
“We get homesick from time to time, particular when it comes to family and things that are endemic to Australia that I love so much, the flora and fauna, and obviously the food, particularly the food in Tasmania.
The Bellengers had flights booked to Australia for March this year and planned to spend two weeks catching up with family.
“Unfortunately due to the COVID-19 pandemic the flights were cancelled.
“So in lieu of not being able to see our family, we want to send them all our love, especially to my Grandparents (Kevin and Margaret Britton) and my Nan (Audrey Bellenger) who is unfortunately not well right now, we love you very much.”