U of A and Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology to continue leading COVID-19 research in 2021

Six new COVID-19-related projects funded by donor community just tip of the research iceberg.

Ryan O'Byrne - 19 January 2021

As we begin 2021, and the pandemic remains a significant part of our lives, the University of Alberta’s Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology continues to demonstrate leadership in Canadian COVID-19 research. The new year also brings new research opportunities thanks to donor support from the community in 2020.

Last May, an impromptu global fundraising campaign called Giving Tuesday NOW sprang up to raise money for those impacted by COVID-19. Styled after the Giving Tuesday campaign that normally takes place in November after Black Friday, the May campaign brought hundreds of thousands of Canadians together in support of a common goal. The U of A used the opportunity to raise money for COVID-19 research, using Giving Tuesday NOW as a launch pad for a month-long fundraising campaign. When the campaign closed at the end of May, the U of A received more than $200,000 from donors—including foundation partners and a few matching gifts—through the COVID-19 and Emerging Pathogens Fund.

“The support we have seen from our donor community has been absolutely amazing,” said Lorne Tyrrell, founding director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology. “Throughout the pandemic we have seen time and again the great things that can be accomplished when the community comes together, focused on a single cause. To see our outstanding research teams quickly shift to take on COVID-19 and the community rally to support them has been remarkable.”

Those funds have been directed towards six new COVID-19 related projects across three faculties. Projects range from new ideas to prevent the spread of the virus using salt-coated masks, to new therapies for treating COVID-19, to gaining a better understanding of the virus itself. More details on these projects will be shared soon, including updates and interviews with the researchers.

2020 research recap

From the beginning of the pandemic, University of Alberta researchers have been tackling COVID-19 from a wide variety of approaches. In the earliest days, before the virus had even reached Canada, researchers Lorne Tyrrell and his team at the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology were among the first in the country to start working with the SARS-CoV-2 virus after it has been sequenced and shared online. By the end of March, 11 COVID-19-related projects had been launched at the U of A, supported by more than $5.8 million in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Alberta Innovates. It was the highest number of projects at a Canadian institution to receive federal funding at the time.

To date, nearly 200 projects have received funding support at the U of A, and there are currently more than 70 COVID-19-related research projects underway at the U of A.

Long history of virology excellence

This is what the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology was built for, Tyrrell said. The institute has a long history of excellence in virology, which was recently underlined by Michael Houghton’s Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology win last year for his discovery of hepatitis C.

Tyrrell noted that the funding also speaks to the outstanding creativity of U of A researchers.

School of Public Health epidemiologist Shelby Yamamoto’s project, part of the first 11 projects mentioned above, is reviewing the impacts of COVID-19 on perinatal mental health. Timothy Caulfield of the Faculty of Law is researching new ways to map and counter COVID-19 misinformation. Medicine & Dentistry’s Matthew Croxen was among the first researchers to focus on rapid RNA sequencing of the virus, hoping to use it for public health surveillance.

Even in the search for a vaccine, the approaches have been varied. Entos Pharmaceuticals— co-founded by John Lewis, oncologist and Frank and Carla Sojonky Chair in Prostate Cancer Research—is developing a vaccine based on its unique Fusogenix platform. Michael Hougton has drawn on his experience creating vaccines for hepatitis C and SARS to explore vaccine options for COVID-19. And Matthias Götte’s work on the key enzymes required for viral replication helped propel the antiviral drug remdesivir to the top of the list of approved drugs for COVID-19 treatment in September.

Although new vaccines have become a light at the end of a long tunnel, there is still much work to be done. If history is any indication, University of Alberta researchers and the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology are up to the challenge and will continue to lead the way as the world deals with COVID-19 in 2021 and beyond.