Western University in London, Ont., is building a unique research lab to study humanity’s greatest viral threats — a secret weapon, if you will, one that it’s expected would put Canada and the world in a better position if and when the next pandemic happens.
“[This is] the next level, in terms of having a facility that really can make a difference,” said Western Prof. Eric Arts, the Canada Research Chair in HIV pathogenesis and viral control who will be executive director of the new Pathogen Research Centre (PRC).
“This will be absolutely amazing and will change the whole dynamic of the way we approach these problems.”
Set to be built within the next two years, the PRC will be almost like a department of viral defence — part simulated battleground and part arsenal — that will allow scientists to study how germs spread in human environments and develop new defences against them, with the hope of stopping the next pandemic before it begins.
Testing viruses in simulated human settings
The new lab is receiving $16 million in federal funding. It’s part of a wider series of grants announced this month by the Canada Foundation for Innovation for eight universities, in an effort to keep the country at the forefront of the science of preventing local outbreaks from becoming global health disasters.
“The COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrated the importance of cutting-edge research in infectious diseases” and “ensuring labs meet standards and are well equipped to combat new challenges in biosciences,” Roseann O’Reilly Runte, president and chief executive officer of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, said in a news release.
What makes the PRC so unique is its mission to understand how viruses spread in real human environments with realistic conditions, such as airplane cabins, hospital operating rooms, even public bathrooms.
Arts said his team is looking to pinpoint the exact conditions that would explain the kinds of superspreader events that made headlines during the tensest days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re actually spraying the virus in a room, which contains for example a slice of airline cabin, and we’ll have mock passengers, like mannequins in these seats that do normal breathing.”
To make mannequins breathe, Arts and his team use artificial lungs lined with the same cells found in the real thing, and then pump air into them at the same respiration rate and air pressure that happens during normal breathing. This is done to better understand how wind flow, humidity, temperature and even different surfaces affect transmission.
“By doing so, we can look at how to protect people from infection too. We’ll know how to do it more effectively.”
Lab to have world’s ‘only seed vaccine bank’
The global COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed hospitals and morgues, and caused widespread economic losses as people stayed home from work and shopping to avoid spreading the virus.
“We were struggling in Canada because we didn’t have these facilities to produce these vaccines. Unlike most G7 countries, which had the ability to produce their own vaccine, Canada was lacking, and so there is a great need for facilities to respond very rapidly,” Arts said.
Many at the time were astonished and vexed at how a virus could have caught the finest minds in medicine so flat-footed. It’s why Arts said the other half of Western’s new PRC will be dedicated to defences to emergent viruses, before they even happen.
“We have a large team that is establishing the only seed vaccine bank in the world, meaning that we’re going to have stocks of vaccines stored in our freezer, thousands and thousands of them that will be there only to serve a purpose if they appear in the human population.
“So if we ever have a jump from a wild animal, this predictive vaccine bank will already have a vaccine there to combat that pandemic so that it’s just a matter of expanding that vaccine and getting it out there for humans.”
Research will ‘drive a whole new industry’
Arts said that for many of his team’s industry partners, the new lab can’t be built soon enough.
Through the new facility, he’ll expand on his current work at Western’s Impackt Facility, a viral imaging lab that was only three months old when the pandemic came to Canada early into 2020.
It’s an important advance in Canada’s ability to be ready for and fight a potential epidemic and pandemic.– Dr. Michael Silverman, director of infectious disease control at St. Joseph’s Healthcare
Soon after, the lab was quickly leveraged for more practical applications, when industry came knocking on the door looking for advice on how to create new materials and spaces that would mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Now, Arts and his team are collaborating with 35 large companies, such as 3M Canada, that are interested in improving the designs of vehicles, equipment, buildings, clothing and ventilation systems in order to give people better protection from disease.
“It’s going to drive a whole new industry,” he said. “Our partners are very big multinational companies.”
Lab could have made difference early in pandemic
The PRC will put Western University and London on the map in terms of developing new virus-resistant materials for industry. But it also has the potential to be a game changer in how humanity deals with disease.
Dr. Michael Silverman, director of the infectious disease program at St. Joseph’s Health Care in London, said having effective and safety tested vaccines for viruses could potentially give us a strong head start the next time a virus like COVID-19 jumps from animals to people.
“As everyone who knows from going through the pandemic, those months [without a vaccine] were particularly painful.
“By studying [viruses] early, and developing potential vaccine candidates and keeping them in a bank, should an epidemic occur before it becomes a pandemic, we would be able to rapidly develop these vaccines,” Silverman said.
“It would have helped not just Canada; it would have helped the world if we had vaccine banks that had coronavirus vaccines.
“It’s extremely exciting,” he said. “It’s an important advance in Canada’s ability to be ready for and fight a potential epidemic and pandemic.”
Nasal Vaccines: Stopping the COVID-19 Virus Before It Reaches the Lungs
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines have played a large role in preventing deaths and severe infections from COVID-19. But researchers are still in the process of developing alternative approaches to vaccines to improve [...]
NASA Tracking a Huge, Growing Anomaly in Earth’s Magnetic Field – with video
NASA is actively monitoring a strange anomaly in Earth's magnetic field: a giant region of lower magnetic intensity in the skies above the planet, stretching out between South America and southwest Africa. This vast, developing [...]
New, Better Models Show How Infectious Diseases Like COVID-19 Spread
Infectious diseases such as COVID-19 can spread rapidly across the globe. Models that can predict how such diseases spread will strengthen national surveillance systems and improve public health decision-making. The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the [...]
Human Antibodies Discovered That Can Block Multiple Coronaviruses Including COVID-19
Results from a Scripps Research and UNC team pave the way for a vaccine and therapeutic antibodies that could be stockpiled to fight future coronavirus pandemics. A team of scientists from Scripps Research and [...]
Nanotechnology could be used to treat lymphedema
The human body is made up of thousands of tiny lymphatic vessels that ferry white blood cells and proteins around the body, like a superhighway of the immune system. It's remarkably efficient, but if [...]
DNA Nanotechnology Tools – From Design to Applications
Suite of DNA nanotechnology devices engineered to overcome specific bottlenecks in the development of new therapies, diagnostics, and understanding of molecular structures. DNA nanostructures with their potential for cell and tissue permeability, biocompatibility, and [...]
Regenerating bone with deer antler stem cells
Scientists from a collection of Chinese research institutions collaborated on a study of organ regeneration in mammals, finding deer antler blastema progenitor cells are a possible source of conserved regeneration cells in higher vertebrates. [...]
AI Takes On Cancer: Analysis of Mutations Could Lead to Improved Therapy
Cancer is a complex and diverse disease, and its range of associated mutations is vast. The combination of these genomic changes in an individual is referred to as their “mutational landscape.” These landscapes vary [...]
Exposing tumours to bacteria converts immune cells to cancer killers
New research on inflammation could lead to better treatments to improve outcomes for people with advanced or previously untreatable cancers. Introducing bacteria to a tumour’s microenvironment creates a state of acute inflammation that triggers [...]
Smart nanotechnology for more accurate delivery of insulin
More efficient and longer lasting glucose-responsive insulin that eliminates the need for people with type 1 diabetes to measure their glucose levels could be a step closer thanks to a Monash University-led project. Published [...]
Efficiently Harvesting Rare Earth Elements From Wastewater Using Exotic Bacteria
The novel strains of cyanobacteria exhibit a fast and efficient “biosorption” of rare earth elements, making recycling possible. Rare earth elements (REEs) are a set of 17 metallic elements that possess similar chemical properties. [...]
Resisting Treatment: Cancer Cells Shrink or Super-Size To Survive
A new approach to image analysis has uncovered how cancer cells manipulate their size as a means of resisting treatment. Researchers have discovered that cancer cells are capable of either shrinking or super-size themselves [...]
New Research Explains Why Children Avoid Severe COVID-19 Symptoms
According to new research, children exhibit a robust initial immune response to the coronavirus, however, they are unable to transfer this response to long-lasting memory T cells like adults do. Researchers led by scientists [...]
Scientists Unravel Protein Map of Mitochondria
A new study sheds light on the organization of proteins within mitochondria. Mitochondria, the “powerhouses” of cells, play a crucial role in the energy production of organisms and are involved in various metabolic and [...]
Mystifying Trapping Phenomenon: A Surprising Way To Catch a Microparticle
New insights could advance microfluidics and drug delivery systems. New study finds obstacles can trap rolling microparticles in fluid Through simulations and experiments, physicists attribute the trapping effect to stagnant pockets of fluid, created [...]
New Alzheimer’s Treatment: Blocking T Cells To Prevent Neurodegeneration
Findings, in mice, open up drug development possibilities for brain diseases linked to tau protein. Nearly two dozen experimental therapies targeting the immune system are in clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease, a reflection of the growing [...]