Vaccine machine

Vaccine machine

CANVAC researchers use robots to measure immune responses for new vaccines
January 1, 2006
If Jonas Salk had Rafick-Pierre Sékaly’s knowledge and equipment, the doctor who pioneered the polio vaccine might not only have known that his vaccine worked before he tested it on himself and his family, he might also have known how and why it worked.

Like Salk, Sékaly and other members of the Université de Montréal’s Canadian Network for Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics (CANVAC) are dedicated to finding vaccines that will curb the outbreaks of diseases that are devastating populations around the globe. Instead of polio, their targets are HIV, Hepatitis C, SARS, cancer, and pandemic influenza.

Unlike Salk, who in 1952 could only make an educated guess about his vaccine’s efficacy, Sékaly and his team concentrate on deciphering the mechanisms of the body’s protective immune response. Before today’s researchers test vaccines on human subjects, they need to know how and why those vaccines will create immune responses.

Salk tested his vaccine on children who had already recovered from polio, and on volunteers who had never had the virus—including himself, his wife, and their children. Today, that kind of testing would be deemed unethical, especially when working with live viruses. Researchers must know more before proceeding to human trials with new vaccines.

“For HIV, Hepatitis C, and many other chronic viruses, nobody knows the nature of the protective immune response and how to measure it,” says Sékaly, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Université de Montréal, and the scientific and program director of CANVAC “In order to know, you need to develop tools to measure and identify that response.”

What Sékaly needs to measure is the way cells react to whatever vaccine he is testing. It’s a process that can involve thousands or even tens of thousands of cell samples. “One of the problems that has slowed down the field [of vaccine development] is the fact that there was very little standardization between different sites and validation of the assays (method, procedure, or test for determining how much of a substance is in a sample) that were being used to measure immune responses,” Sékaly says.

Sékaly hopes to overcome that roadblock by using robotic technology. This will allow researchers to standardize their tests and process thousands of samples at a time.

Within 18 months, Sékaly will work in tandem with a robotic arm that will ensure consistently high standards and easy-to-reproduce results, and permit better characterization of the markers of immune protection that are critical in modern vaccine development. Standardized tests to measure immune responses will allow researchers to assess vaccines to see if they are creating the desired immune responses.

Once researchers can predict how the body’s immune system is likely to respond to a particular vaccine, they can then forge ahead with clinical trials.

Working with other researchers in the vaccine network, like Dr. Frank Plummer at the University of Manitoba, Sékaly and his team also study the immune responses of people who appear to be naturally protected against some viruses, like HIV. They hope to be able to compare natural immune responses with the responses induced by initial forms of a vaccine. That would enable them to develop a second vaccine that would “fill up the gaps” or create an even stronger immune response.


Vaccines are the most cost-effective way to treat infectious disease, because they are preventative. The smallpox vaccine enabled the medical profession to wipe out the disease; Salk’s polio vaccine has nearly eradicated the virus in many parts of the world, including North America. (India and Indonesia are among the countries still struggling with polio.)

At the Université de Montréal, Sékaly and other members of CANVAC are developing tools to measure the human immune response to infectious diseases. Their work is a critical step in developing vaccines that could save millions of lives. In the case of HIV/AIDS, it would also save billions of dollars in health care costs, along with social and economic costs that countries coping with epidemics incur.

“Diseases like AIDS are killing millions of people,” says Sékaly. Although drug cocktails can slow or stall the disease, the antiviral medication that patients need is too expensive for most developing countries. Those who need the drugs don’t always get them.

“We know that we’ll never be able to provide [these populations] with therapies because the therapies are extremely costly. The only way to intervene effectively is to provide vaccines that can prevent the disease,” says Sékaly.

Sékaly’s laboratories will be linked to cell-processing facilities at McMaster University in Hamilton and at private facilities at MDS Pharma in Montreal. Eventually, Sékaly and the CANVAC team also want to build a vaccine production plant that would be available for academic collaborations. “That would give us the complete picture [in the field of vaccinology],” Sekaly says.

Canada must rely on its own production facilities and researchers in the event of any outbreak of epidemic, such as the cyclical influenza pandemic the World Health Organization has been warning is overdue.” Having a strong set-up that goes all the way from pre-clinical to vaccine production gives us not only a competitive edge at developing new vaccines, but also ensures that if there is an epidemic, we have our own vaccine infrastructure [to effectively combat it],” says Sékaly.


At Thermo CRS Ltd., Grace Mangialardi and her colleagues specialize in finding automation solutions for laboratories. That’s why the Bdefaultington, Ontario-based company is a natural fit to work with Sékaly and his team at the Université de Montréal to create a robotic platform that will help researchers process tens of thousands of cell samples quickly, accurately, and consistently. That’s particularly important when researchers are trying to develop vaccines quickly in response to developing epidemics like SARS.

“Humans just can’t mentally schedule everything to start all at the same time, and process things as accurately as a robot can,” says Mangialardi, Thermo CRS’s area manager.

Thanks to the fully automated robotic system, Sékaly and other researchers will move closer to their goal of unlocking human immune responses to disease and developing vaccines to generate protective responses.

They will also be able to work with live viruses in a “clean” or containment room safely as the robotic arm will handle the samples.

“You need to prepare samples quickly because you want to reduce the amount of time any infectious substances are open to the environment,” says Mangialardi. “If they can develop a vaccine [more efficiently] because they have the capabilities to do it with a robotic platform, that’s all the better.”

Using cutting-edge automation and equipment is necessary to keep Canada on the forefront of vaccine research and development. “It’s also important to retain high-quality researchers like Dr. Sékaly and his team [of more than 40 researchers] in Canada,” Mangialardi says.

“Just being associated with them... ensures that we will be able to continue to offer new and leading-edge technology solutions in the future,” she adds.

Learn More

Read about Thermo CRS.

Learn more about Jonas Salk and the way he tested the polio vaccine.