Five years Viral Vector Facility

The Viral Vector Facility started operations 5 years ago as a project initiated by the ZNZ. Since then, the non-profit facility has become a successful, established platform. In April 2019, the Executive Board of the University has recognized the VVF as a Central Technology Platform of UZH. ZNZ News talked with Dr. Jean-Charles Paterna, Manager of the VVF, about the past and future of the facility.

ZNZ News: Did the VVF fulfil the original project expectations?

Jean-Charles Paterna: When the VVF was established in 2014, we had clearly hit the right nerve. We officially opened for users in 2015 (see ZNZ news) and there was a lot of interest in our services right from the start. The whole project went according to plan and partially exceeded our expectations! Now we have 5 employees, including me and co-manager Dr. Melanie Rauch, who joined the VVF as scientific associate.

What are the services offered by the VVF?

We offer a repository of premade adeno-associated virus (AAV) vectors, custom-made viral vectors, as well as molecular biology services. An important component of our services is consultancy on which viral systems and expression cassettes to use for a specific research question. In the beginning of our project for example, we provided a variety of different AAV vector capsids – the proteinaceous shell – that contained the recombinant genome encoding the green fluorescent protein (GFP). Each capsid has different properties, depending on its specific amino acid composition, with respect to cellular tropism and transduction efficiency. Users could order and test for free all available AAV capsid variants in their specific experimental settings to identify the most efficient candidates. Based on these pilot experiments, some groups have re-adjusted their protocols.

In August 2018, we launched an online catalogue of our viral vector repository. This online-virus web shop was created by Christian Schättin, a talented programmer and former student of mine, and offers custom-made and pre-made viral constructs. The online platform has greatly improved ordering and processing of orders, while at the same time giving customers a great overview of available vectors. Since its beginning, we have received on average each day an order for premade AAV vectors.

Where do users come from?

In 2018 we have completed 440 new orders, with users from the UZH and ETH (21%), other academic institutions from over 20 countries (74%) and from industry (5%). The fact that we have so many external users, who pay more for our services than users form ETH and UZH, shows the competitiveness of our services in the market. With the income from the services we have been able to finance all our running costs, including salaries, consumables, maintenance and equipment.

What has contributed to the success of the VVF?

The kind hosting of the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology, where we are housed and share facilities, has enabled us to keep costs low. The location ensures close proximity to research groups, which is beneficial for both sides: It means we get access to the newest developments in research and researchers have the possibility to try out new viral vectors and expression cassettes in close collaboration with us, which helps considerably to increase their success rate.

What are the implications of the Central Technology Platform status?

For us it is an important recognition of the usefulness of the technology and of the quality of our work. Remember that when we started in 2014 we could not predict the long-term demand for our vectors. For our customers not a lot will change, but the new status will guarantee the continuity of the VVF services.

Further information

Image: Example of AAV vectors provided by the VVF: Mice with disease phenotype of adult phenylketonuria show lighter fur due to an enzymatic defect, which leads to severe symptoms in humans (see mouse in the middle). When treated with CRISPR–Cas-associated base editors delivered with Adeno-Associated Virus vectors, the disease phenotype is corrected, and the fur phenotype restored (mouse to the left) to wild-type (mouse to the right). Adapted from Villiger et al. Nature Medicine 2018; 24:1519–1525