University of Alberta researchers in race against time to create COVID-19 vaccine

Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology houses the critical facilities, human resources needed for success.

Julia Necheff - 20 April 2020

In the movies, scientists race against time to find a vaccine or cure for a contagion. In the real world, scientists are working around the clock across the globe to combat COVID-19. Researchers in Alberta have joined that global effort, funded through a partnership between the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and Alberta Innovates.

One such researcher is Michael Houghton, director of the University of Alberta's Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute, part of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, a world-class centre of excellence.

Houghton is internationally renowned for his co-discovery of the hepatitis C virus in 1989 and for his work in developing a hep-C vaccine. Houghton joined the U of A when the Li Ka Shing institute was founded in 2010. Since its beginning, the virology institute has been supported by Alberta Innovates, the U of A and the Government of Alberta.

Houghton has been working with his distinguished U of A colleague Dr. Lorne Tyrrell to develop their hep-C vaccine and bring it into widespread use. Houghton also developed a promising vaccine for SARS in 2004 in just one year, but it did not go into full production once the SARS virus was contained.

Now, Houghton and Tyrrell, along with their team of researchers, have received $750,000 in total funding from the CIHR and Alberta Innovates to support their efforts to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. "We're in a situation where millions of people are being infected with COVID-19 and a frightening projection from the U.S. is that 200,000 people might die.… That is really sobering when you hear projections like that. So obviously the risk (of COVID-19) is huge," Houghton says.

National partnership

Tim Murphy, vice-president of Health Innovation at Alberta Innovates, says the organization recognizes and supports the excellent work being done by Houghton and his team during this global pandemic. "Our partnership with CIHR allows us to ensure that our investments in COVID-19 activities are connected nationally and leveraged against the tremendous resources being deployed at a federal level."

Houghton says U of A researchers are well-positioned to develop an effective vaccine against COVID-19 in a relatively short time period. He notes that his team has been able to build on past successes with the hep-C vaccine and they also have access to critical facilities at the U of A. These include a Level 3 containment lab and a certified GMP (good manufacturing practice) facility for production of vaccine for clinical trials.

"I'm hoping we can have some clinical material with which we can go into Phase 1 clinical testing at the end of this year, approximately…. I think we have the ability to do it," to develop a vaccine that would be acceptable to Health Canada, he says.

"I'm not exaggerating-we have a unique combination of access to state-of-the-art research, biological development and a GMP facility to enable us to do the research, to develop it for human use, both in the vaccine and in the therapeutic fields.

"It's not common, even in the United States. You'll be hard-pressed to find a university that has all of those boxes ticked."

Solutions take time

Matthias Ruth, vice-president of Research and Innovation at the U of A, says vaccines and treatments are not overnight sensations. "It takes time. Time to understand a virus and the disease it causes, and time to understand the complexities of human biology and immune responses. It also takes significant expertise in many fields, advanced research facilities and equipment."

Ruth says the university has about 30 projects underway including vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics, with more projects in development. "We are ready to fight COVID-19 because of the significant investments we have made in expertise and cutting-edge research infrastructure, built over decades with provincial and federal government, industry, private and philanthropic support. This pandemic truly illustrates why research is both a critical need and an essential service, and how sustained investment and collaboration are so crucial."

Houghton says if his team's "spike protein" vaccine is approved by Health Canada, the U of A's GMP facility, called the Alberta Cell Therapy Manufacturing (ACTM) group led by Greg Korbutt, has the capability of manufacturing enough vaccine for all Albertans.

Partnering with large manufacturers would make enough coronavirus vaccine available for all Canadians and beyond.

While everyone wants to see the pandemic contained through social distancing as soon as possible, the virus has so far proven to be a serious global threat that continues to grow. "The more vaccine candidates there are available, the better and faster our chances will be to defeat the coronavirus and this global pandemic," says Murphy.