Depending on whom you ask, the H1N1 flu virus that is making its way around the globe could be anything from a particularly virulent form of influenza to the next worldwide pandemic. As virologists scramble to understand the virus and develop vaccines against it, a Halifax facility is already on the front lines of the battle.
The new Canadian Center for Vaccinology (CCfV) is currently conducting about 80 studies on a variety of vaccines for a range of infectious diseases, including one for the H1N1 flu virus. Staying one step ahead of emerging diseases like H1N1 is the CCfV’s raison d’être.
If a perception exists that there has been a sudden rise in infectious diseases in recent years, CCfV director Scott Halperin says it is an illusion created by media attention. New viruses have been appearing regularly in the human population for millennia, and the 21st century is no different. “Emerging infectious diseases are common,” says Halperin. “We’ve seen a lot of them throughout the last few decades — HIV, SARS, new forms of tuberculosis, hantavirus. The microbiology of diseases is constantly evolving, and it always will.”
The facility, based at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, is operated by a diverse group of scientists, physicians, investigators, bioethicists and public health professionals. Together, they are studying a range of infectious diseases and testing new vaccines that may control them. At the same time, they are working to develop new vaccine technologies, such as needle-free vaccination systems.
The latest innovation is the Sanofi Pasteur Vaccine Challenge Unit, a state-of-the-art clinic with 10 isolation units. The clinic offers pharmaceutical companies and vaccine researchers a carefully controlled environment where new vaccines can be safely tested on human subjects. Here, volunteers who have been vaccinated with test vaccines and exposed to viruses bide their time in isolation behind HEPA-filtered walls in negative-pressure rooms, while doctors and technicians carefully monitor their progress.
The volunteers for challenge studies come from all walks of life and all age groups. Some people are looking for access to the latest biotechnological innovation for themselves and their families. Some want the vaccines at no charge. Many just want to do their part for science. But all are healthy individuals who can commit to spending up to two weeks in the unit, cut off from friends, family and the outside world. University students looking for some quiet time to study or write papers are a common volunteer demographic. In general, volunteers receive a small stipend — just enough to offset expenses like parking and transportation.
If it sounds a little futuristic, it is. The Sanofi Pasteur Vaccine Challenge Unit is the first of its kind anywhere in Canada and is one of just a handful of vaccine challenge units in the world. It makes the CCfV the only facility in the country where participants can be safely challenged with a pathogen following immunization, where researchers can study living humans with respect to such things as infectious-disease transmission, antimicrobial effectiveness and pharmacokinetics (the science of studying the fate of micro-organisms after they are exposed to various substances).
The CCfV has become a magnet for attracting world-renowned researchers to Halifax and securing large development grants from pharmaceutical companies, thus representing an important economic driver. But an even more fundamental benefit of the facility, according to Halperin, will help all Canadians, not just the scientific community in Halifax. Its existence means Canadians will be first in line for new vaccines.
“By having this facility, drug companies are more likely to come here,” says Halperin. “New vaccines developed in Canada are available here first. We saw the reverse with the chicken pox vaccine. It was developed in the United States, so children in the U.S. had it a few years before Canadian children. With the Center for Vaccinology, we can reverse that trend.”