April 14, 2020

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

Dr. Michael Houghton

The challenge: The COVID-19 pandemic has become increasingly grim, day by day. As of April 14, the global death toll was 117,000 and the number of confirmed infections was more than 1.84 million.
How Alberta Innovates helped: Funding support for university researchers.
The innovation: A vaccine to prevent COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

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

One such researcher is Dr. 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.

Dr. 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 University of Alberta when the Li Ka Shing institute was founded in 2010. Since its beginning, the virology institute also has been supported by Alberta Innovates, the University of Alberta, 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 talented team of researchers at the U of A, 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 obviously where millions of people are being infected with COVID-19 and a frightening projection from the U.S. 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 University of Alberta 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.

Solutions take time

“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.”

Matthias Ruth, Vice-President Research and Innovation at the University of Alberta, 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, therapeutics, and 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 Dr. Greg Korbutt, has the capability of manufacturing enough vaccine for all Albertans.

Partnering with large vaccine 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 of Alberta Innovates.