The U of A's Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology is responding to the COVID-19 crisis

The University of Alberta's Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology was set up in 2010 to be ready for a moment just like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gillian Rutherford - 27 May 2020

The University of Alberta's Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology was set up in 2010 to be ready for a moment just like the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We set up in the beginning so that we would have funding to sponsor rapid responses to new viruses," says founding director Lorne Tyrrell, '64 BSc, '68 MD, PhD. Tyrrell pooled funding from numerous sources to found the institute, including a $25-million donation from Hong Kong businessman Li Ka-shing to establish an endowment to operate the institute. The Alberta government promised a further $5 million a year in recognition of the potential to diversify the economy by turning research discoveries into profitable pharmaceutical products.

When word started to trickle out of China in early January that a new and deadly virus was spreading fast, Tyrrell immediately pulled together more than 20 institute members to brainstorm how they could help.

After the Canadian Institutes for Health Research announced $26.8 million for rapid responses to COVID-19, "we had a week to write grant proposals," Tyrrell says. "They were reviewed over a weekend and we were notified right away."

Newly published research by Matthias Götte, PhD, into remdesivir, a drug proven to be active against Ebola virus but with even more activity against two other deadly members of the coronavirus family-severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)-was immediately fast-tracked. The lab has since found the drug effective against a key enzyme of coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

A total of 11 U of A projects have received $5.8 million in funding from the federal government's Canadian 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research competition, including:

  • investigation of protease inhibitors, a class of antiviral drugs that also block replication of viruses (Joanne Lemieux, PhD, director of the U of A's Membrane Protein Disease Research Group)
  • COVID-19 diagnostic tests for home or remote settings (Chris Le, PhD, director of analytical and environmental toxicology in the U of A's Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology)
  • work on a potential vaccine (Michael Houghton, PhD, director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute)
  • development of an anti-COVID-19 therapeutic (Michael James, PhD, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in Biochemistry)
  • sequencing the RNA of coronavirus (Matthew Croxen, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathology)

Researchers at the institute are now working with samples of the coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), using custom-built sealed labs, special gowns, masks and headgear. Alberta Innovates has since contributed nearly $850,000 in additional funding for the U of A's ongoing research.

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