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Vaccine nation

To fight emerging global viruses, Canadian researchers are banding together to create potent new vaccines
April 1, 2004
 

Deep in the bowels of the Southern Research Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, researchers have begun to test a Canadian-made vaccine that has the potential to save the lives of millions of people around the world.

Just a year since an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) killed 44 people in Canada and close to 800 people worldwide, a unique collaboration of Canadian researchers has developed the new vaccine being tested in Birmingham. If the tests prove successful, the vaccine could protect against future outbreaks of SARS, or at the very least, mitigate its potential to devastate the global population.

The quick development of the SARS vaccine is a particularly astonishing accomplishment that's the result of team work and the proper infrastructure, says Lorne Babiuk, Director of the University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO). “Within less than a year, we have a vaccine being tested,” he says. “We couldn't have done this if we didn't have the infrastructure in place. You can sit and dream all you want, but if you don't have the intellectual capital, the physical capital, and the infrastructure, you can't do anything.”

VIDO is one of several Canadian institutions mobilized in a rapid-response initiative to develop the vaccine (under normal conditions vaccines can take as long as 10 years to develop). The SARS Accelerated Vaccine Initiative (SAVI), run by the Michael Smith Foundation in British Columbia , which includes VIDO as a member, has been working at an unprecedented pace using talent harnessed from across the country. Eventually, Babiuk's goal is to have rapid-response vaccine teams in place to respond to all such emergencies.

The VIDO facility, which opened a new wing in Saskatoon in October 2003, is home to 135 researchers, graduate students, post-graduate fellows, and technicians. It's unique because it focuses on developing vaccines for both humans and animals—a vital convergence in an era when most of the infectious diseases emerging to challenge human health are believed to be jumping from one species to another.

The SARS vaccine is being tested at the Southern Research Institute in Alabama because it has a Level III containment facility, meaning it has the necessary precautions in place to make sure that highly infectious organisms do not escape and infect the general public. VIDO is currently a Level II facility. However, Babiuk has just received another CFI grant to help him finance an expansion at the Saskatoon site. The expansion could allow VIDO's researchers to do their own Level III testing in the future.

The SARS vaccine is just one of the many vaccines that VIDO researchers are developing. They're also working on vaccines for Hepatitis C, and vaccines that would combat the pathogens associated with food safety, such as salmonella, E. coli 0157:H7 and campylobacter. All of these pathogens, which live in animals, can adversely affect the humans consuming those animals.

VIDO is developing innovative new techniques to deliver vaccines to humans and animals.

Benefits

In Canada alone, 44 people died from the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The outbreak also devastated the economies of Toronto and Vancouver , dramatically reducing tourism and business travel to Canada. Worldwide, the World Health Organization holds SARS responsible for 8,000 cases and close to 800 deaths, as well as the loss of $500 billion in economic output. Developing a vaccine that could protect people against the illness and minimize the economic consequence would have a direct impact on the quality of life of all Canadians. It would also positively impact the citizens of every country affected by SARS.

But new vaccines for animals are also critical, says VIDO's Director Lorne Babiuk. To highlight the importance, he points to the devastation wreaked on the Canadian beef industry by so-called “mad cow disease” (bovine spongeform encephalitis) and the avian flu's effect on the poultry industry in Asia . What are researchers doing to deal with these types of problems? Working with colleagues at the University of British Columbia , University of Saskatchewan researchers have already developed a vaccine that reduces the level of E. coli 0157:H7 in cattle. By keeping cattle disease-free, the vaccine will help to reduce human illnesses and deaths, as well as the economic losses associated with the microbe. On other fronts, researchers are also working on vaccines to prevent heart disease that has been linked to infections of chlamydia and streptococcus.

Partners

Pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology firms are working in partnership with researchers at the University of Saskatchewan 's Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Organization (VIDO). Once the researchers devise and develop a vaccine, the biopharmaceutical firms shepherd it through the approval process in Canada and the United States , and then market the product. The university gets a royalty from sales. So far, researchers at VIDO already hold 52 U.S.-issued patents and have about 27 others pending, says Lorne Babiuk, VIDO's Director. They also have about two dozen agreements with industry partners to co-develop or market technology.

One of these partner companies is Netherlands-based Qiagen N.V., a biopharmaceutical firm that worked with VIDO to develop technology that improves the production of vaccines. Rolf Hecker, Director of Qiagen N.V.'s Pecura division, has worked with VIDO for the past five years. “They are outstanding because they are scientific leaders,” Hecker says. “In 1993, Lorne Babiuk was one of the first people who showed that DNA vaccines would work in animals. At VIDO you find the science excellence and the ability to test that in a very practical setting on animals. That is extremely unique.”

 

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