New provincial research funding for U of A aims to create made-in-Alberta vaccine and drug development pipeline

Government of Alberta makes $55.1-million investment to take new vaccines and antiviral drugs from discovery to manufacturing.


Premier Jason Kenney, U of A president Bill Flanagan, and researchers Lorne Tyrrell, Matthias Götte and John Lewis were among the representatives on hand as the Government of Alberta announced a $55.1-million investment in U of A research to take new vaccines and antiviral drugs from discovery to manufacturing. (Photo: Jordon Hon)

Alberta is building a better pipeline, but this one’s not for oil and gas products — it’s for vaccines and therapeutic drugs to fight viral diseases.

The province announced a $55.1-million grant today for University of Alberta research on ways to prevent and treat COVID-19, including $15 million for vaccine projects and $10 million for studies on antiviral drugs.

The U of A has been a Canadian leader in COVID-19 research, attracting more than $30 million in federal rapid response funding and publishing 121 papers within the first year of the pandemic.

The new grant will ensure that leadership continues, according to Lorne Tyrrell, Distinguished University Professor of medical microbiology and immunology in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, founding director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology and co-lead on the grant.

“If we’re going to remain competitive internationally — which we all want to be — you need great people with great instruments. This is critical,” Tyrrell said.

Lorne Tyrrell
Renowned virologist Lorne Tyrrell is co-leading U of A research on vaccine and antiviral drug development that received $55.1 million in new funding from the Government of Alberta. (Photo: John Ulan)

The new funds will also pay for upgrades and new facilities that are critical for the “pipeline”: discovering promising compounds, testing them and running clinical trials at the university before they are then manufactured and distributed as commercial products by private industry.

“This pipeline approach is really a collaborative, multi-pronged effort by a large interdisciplinary group of scientists who are experts in the area of infectious diseases and immunity here at the University of Alberta,” said co-lead Matthias Götte, professor and chair of the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology. “This is what is required for pandemic preparedness.”

“Alberta's government identified pharmaceutical and life sciences as a key sector in the economic recovery plan,” said Premier Jason Kenney during the announcement at the U of A's Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Research Innovation. “That starts with the research at places like the Li Ka Shing Institute, where Dr. Tyrrell and his team are leading the way, to facilities like those that the successful applications are hoping to build here in Alberta in the near future.”

The provincial announcement also included funding for three private-sector projects in support of vaccine development, including a project by Entos Pharmaceuticals, headed by U of A researcher John Lewis, to set up a commercial manufacturing facility in Edmonton.

Taking the best ideas from concept to clinical trials 

The new and upgraded facilities at the University of Alberta will be critical to each step of vaccine and drug development.

First, scientists must identify promising compounds. This will be supported by a new structural biology lab equipped with a cryogenic electron microscope (Cryo-EM), only the fourth of its kind in Canada. The inventors of Cryo-EM technology won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and it has since revolutionized drug discovery, including aiding the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines.

“This is a state-of-the-art, high-resolution microscope that allows us to look at the components that build the virus,” explained Götte, who is an expert in the polymerase enzymes or “engines” that drive viral replication. 

“It took 15 years to get a detailed picture of the HIV engine, but thanks to this new technology several groups reported detailed structural information about the replication machinery of SARS-CoV-2 within three months of the outbreak,” he said.

Matthias Götte
Matthias Götte, co-lead on the U of A research, says the new funding will provide state-of-the-art equipment that will help scientists see the structure of viruses and speed the development of vaccines or antiviral compounds. (Photo: John Ulan)

Once scientists can see exactly how the virus is built, it is much easier to develop vaccines or antiviral compounds that target these structures.

“In a pandemic, you have to react and develop countermeasures quickly,” Götte said. “This is exactly what a Cryo-EM can do.”

Upgrades to the U of A’s existing Biosafety Level 3 laboratory, which allows safe handling of the world’s most lethal diseases, will support the second step in the development process: testing promising compounds in cell cultures and animal models.

Finally, new equipment at the Alberta Cell Therapy Manufacturing facility will allow researchers to bottle their newly developed vaccines and drugs for the first and second phases of human clinical trials.

Attracting investment and jobs

Tyrrell and Götte said the new grant will enhance work that is already underway on promising vaccines and antivirals at U of A.

The new equipment and research funding will bring top graduate students, research associates and professors to the U of A, they said, and will be a “springboard for job creation” through spinoffs and new companies attracted to Alberta by the academic breakthroughs.

“There's no doubt that companies will relocate to places where they know they will have access to good intellectual property and a well-trained workforce,” Tyrrell said.

Revenues for the worldwide pharmaceutical and therapeutics sector are projected to grow to $1.5 trillion by 2023, according to the Government of Alberta. A homegrown industry would tap into this, while also giving Albertans a better defence against COVID-19 and other viral diseases with a range of vaccines and antivirals.

“COVID-19 is going to be around for a long time,” said Tyrrell. “Vaccines have been a game-changer, but people will continue to get infected and they will need antiviral treatments — and more than one because the virus may develop resistance.”

Götte sees U of A researchers contributing to the search for vaccines that create a longer-term immune response and therapeutics that target both the polymerase engine and the protease or “scissors” of the virus, preventing it from replicating inside a patient’s body.

The pipeline for new vaccines and treatments will also be ready for the next scientific and human challenge ahead — another, as yet unknown, viral pandemic that Tyrrell said is inevitable.

“There will be more pandemics,” he said. “What we've learned from this one is that the world can't afford not to be prepared and respond quickly, so we don't have the devastation that we see now.”