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Ottawa researchers attempting to repurpose cancer-fighting viruses for COVID-19 vaccine

Dr. Carolina Ilkow and Dr. John Bell just received a grant of $250,000 to continue their research.
2018-02-28 Ottawa General Hospital3 MV
The Ottawa General Hospital, February 28, 2018. (Photo/ Mike Vlasveld)

A pair of Ottawa researchers are using their knowledge of cancer-fighting viruses to come up with a COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Carolina Ilkow and Dr. John Bell are working with colleagues across the country and around the world on this project, and just recieved a grant of $250,000 from Fast Grants. It is just one of 23 COVID-19 grants issued to Canadian research institutions, after a rapid review by a panel of biomedical experts. 

Fast Grants is partnered with The Thistledown Foundation, established by Fiona McKean and her husband Tobi Lütke, founder of Ottawa-based Shopify. Funding was awarded and transferred to researchers within days compared to the many months usually required for traditional grant competitions.

"Over the years we’ve developed a number of cancer-killing viruses that can replicate inside cancer cells, bust them open and spread throughout a tumour, without harming normal tissues," said Dr. Bell of The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. "One of the key things we’ve learned is that the best cancer-killing viruses also stimulate the body’s own immune system -- in effect, training the immune cells to recognize and help attack the cancer cells. We’ve developed a number of viruses that are very good at this kind of immune stimulation, that have already been tested safely in people."

It turns out that a harmless virus that stimulates a strong immune response is also exactly what’s needed to create a vaccine for COVID-19.  

"Our immune system can learn to recognize and fight COVID-19, but this process takes time," said Dr. Ilkow, a scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. "A vaccine would expose the body to tiny harmless bits of COVID-19, so that the immune system can build an army that will be ready to attack if the real virus comes along."

Dr. Ilkow and Dr. Bell and their colleagues have developed at least four different cancer-fighting viruses that they think could be repurposed as vaccines for COVID-19. They are now genetically engineering those viruses so that they produce small pieces of the COVID-19 virus, to stimulate the required immune response.   

"COVID-19 is a novel virus so we don’t know which vaccine strategy will work best," said Dr. Ilkow. "We need to try everything we have."

Their research team includes Dr. Douglas Mahoney and his partners at the University of Calgary, and Dr. Zhou Xing and Dr. Brian Lichty and their teams, both at McMaster University. 

They hope to begin testing their vaccines in humans by the end of the year.   

"It is so inspiring to be part of this global vaccine effort," said Dr. Ilkow. "Researchers around the world are working together and sharing ideas and data so we can save lives and help people get back to normal."

Once a promising vaccine is created, the team will be able to make large quantities in The Ottawa Hospital’s Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre. This facility is the only hospital-based lab in Canada capable of producing virus-based vaccines and therapies for clinical trials. 

"It is incredible to receive a grant like this," said Dr. Ilkow. "This comes at a crucial time when we really need funding to advance our research, and it motivates the team to work even harder."

As the researchers carefully walk through The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre every day on the way to their lab, they are also motivated by the patients in the waiting rooms.  

"Most of our cancer researchers are working from home due to the need for physical distancing and it is hard for us to see all that cancer research slow down," said Dr. Bell. "But we know that people with cancer who get COVID-19 are much more likely to die, so we think that working on a vaccine is the best thing we can do right now to help them. And we’ll get back to all the other cancer research as soon as we can."

This project is one of more than 50 COVID-19 research projects currently being explored at The Ottawa Hospital. 

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