Disease fighter

Disease fighter

September 15, 2007
A serious new disease emerges almost every 18 months somewhere on Earth, and in today’s interconnected world, a global outbreak could be just a plane ride away. In many cases, these health threats first emerge in animals.

“Developing vaccines for animals and humans is the best approach for protecting people and preventing the spread of disease in the 21st century,” says Lorne Babiuk, a Canada Research Chair in Vaccinology and Biotechnology. Developing animal vaccines in order to protect humans makes sense when you consider the impact of current animal-borne threats to humans like Avian Influenza, West Nile, and BSE.

Growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan may have contributed to Babiuk’s interest in the connections between animals and humans. But his research skills are what vaulted him to the top of his profession. In 1984, he joined the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan as Research Director. Within a few years, VIDO scientists—relying in part on CFI-funded infrastructure—developed the world’s first genetically engineered vaccine for animals.

The advances kept coming. In early 2007, an E. coli vaccine for cattle was released from VIDO’s food safety program. “This made Canada the first country in the world with a vaccine to control E. coli,” says Babiuk. Greatly reducing the amount of E. coli in cattle manure lessens the chances of contamination of our water and food.

Today, Babiuk is the Vice President of Research at the University of Alberta. But before leaving VIDO in the summer of 2007, he secured the funding and oversaw the completion of a Biosafety Level III facility accredited to work on SARS and other deadly viruses. Babiuk’s tenure also saw VIDO expand its research from animals to human health. In 2005, VIDO was awarded US$5.6 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a single-dose vaccine that will protect newborns against whooping cough, a respiratory disease that kills 400,000 babies annually.

“If you had told me 30 years ago that I would be working on these kinds of critical projects, I would have laughed. But it goes to show that you have to dream in technicolour,” says Babiuk.