Federal funds set to boost U of A’s ability to handle highly infectious pathogens

Level 3 biocontainment lab to get specialized equipment and train more highly qualified personnel to search for treatments and vaccines against potential future pandemics.


The U of A’s capacity for safely studying the world’s most dangerous pathogens — and developing new vaccines and treatments against them — is set to expand thanks to new federal funding for specialized biocontainment labs. (Photo: John Ulan)

Canada should be much better prepared to combat the next new virus or bacteria that threatens to trigger a pandemic, thanks to $127 million handed out to eight research facilities today — including the University of Alberta’s Containment Level 3 laboratories, among the largest in the country.

The U of A is set to receive nearly $11.5 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to expand its capacity to discover and develop vaccines and treatments for emerging pathogens.

The goal of the new federal funding is to bolster the country’s biomanufacturing and life sciences sector by ensuring it has access to cutting-edge research equipment and personnel.

“To continue protecting the health and safety of Canadians, Canada’s post-secondary institutions and research hospitals require innovative research spaces and biocontainment facilities like the eight state-of-the-art facilities announced today,” says François-Philippe Champagne, federal minister of innovation, science and industry. “This investment will help build Canada’s talent pipeline and research systems to grow a competitive domestic life sciences sector, with cutting-edge biomanufacturing capabilities.”

The expanded U of A facilities will be used by cross-faculty research teams from cell biology, medical microbiology and immunology, medicine, chemistry, oncology and mechanical engineering, all with a focus on managing the impact of infection.

“We have one of the most distinguished and experienced groups of virology researchers in the country, with people such as Nobel Laureate Michael Houghton and D. Lorne Tyrrell, founding director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, as well as junior and mid-tier investigators,” says Tom Hobman, professor in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, former Canada Research Chair in RNA Viruses and Host Interactions, and academic lead for the U of A’s biocontainment facilities.

“We have a long and proud history of infectious disease research, and this new funding will allow us to remain at the forefront while supporting the needs of the Canadian pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors,” Hobman says.

Key to Canada’s biopharmaceutical manufacturing strategy

The funding will be used for upgrades to three Containment Level 3 laboratories — two on the U of A campus and the third at Alberta Precision Laboratories.

Five suites in the large biocontainment lab on campus will now be fully outfitted with new equipment such as incubators, microscopes, centrifuges, biocontainment hoods and freezers to handle, store and study some of the world’s deadliest pathogens.

The facility’s wastewater sterilization system will be replaced, allowing U of A researchers to handle a wider variety of pathogens, including those that cause foreign animal diseases such as pseudorabies virus and avian influenza virus, which could be deadly to livestock and wildlife as well as humans.

More new equipment will allow for the development of high-throughput screening platforms to rapidly identify and test compounds that block the replication of pathogens — potential drugs that could stop a disease from spreading within the population.

The labs’ capacity to do pre-clinical testing on such promising drugs will also be increased, so researchers can take discoveries made at the university or within pharmaceutical companies through the next level of testing — a key step toward approval for use in humans.

The injection of cash means the number of trainees who can work in the facilities will increase threefold, the ability to rapidly identify and characterize new viruses and bacteria will increase nearly 20-fold, and pre-clinical testing capacity will increase by 500 per cent, according to Hobman.

“The U of A is already considered as the mecca of virology in Canada,” Hobman says. “We have tremendous relationships with the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, we’ve spun out a number of companies that develop and test antiviral drugs. There’s just not a lot of places that can boast this type of horsepower.”

Along with Hobman, Houghton and Tyrrell, the research teams include David Evans and David Marchant from medical microbiology and immunology, Bird Dogs Chair in Translational Oncology John Lewis, chemist Lara Mahal, Vanessa Meier-Stephenson of the Department of Medicine, neurologist Christopher Power and mechanical engineer Lexuan Zhong.

“This funding, as a key part of the Canadian biopharmaceutical manufacturing strategy, will allow us to work together to propagate and study high containment level pathogens in order to develop compounds and vaccines that work against them,” Hobman says.