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On the verge

Alumnus' team anticipating human clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccine


By Michelle Osmond

In the uncertain reality of an ongoing global pandemic, anticipation is building around the development of a vaccine.

Dr. Paul Hodgson, a Memorial alumnus (PhD’02), and associate director at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac), may be on the cusp.

Human clinical trials

The team at VIDO-InterVac, one of the largest, most advanced containment facilities in the world able to conduct research on a COVID-19 vaccine, has secured over $50 million from the Government of Canada and the Government of Saskatchewan in the last few months for the cause.

This includes establishing a manufacturing facility as well as funding to further develop a vaccine for human clinical trials.

“I have been working on the manufacturing facility as a VIDO-InterVac strategic asset for a decade. It just took a pandemic to fully secure the funding,” Dr. Hodgson said with a joke.

On May 25 the VIDO-InterVac team announced that its COVID-19 vaccine candidate cleared a major milestone: It has proven highly effective in ferrets, a commonly used animal model for the virus.

“It was an incredible feeling when we realized we had developed a vaccine that has the potential to help the entire world.” — Dr. Paul Hodgson

The pre-clinical results showed a strong immune response, the generation of neutralizing antibodies and a decrease in the virus in the upper respiratory tract to almost undetectable levels.

“It was an incredible feeling when we realized we had developed a vaccine that has the potential to help the entire world,” he said.

Head-start advantage

The organization did have a head start.

VIDO-InterVac, which is housed at the University of Saskatchewan, has been studying global outbreaks of both severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), both caused by coronaviruses, for two decades.

The organization has commercialized two animal coronavirus vaccines (bovine coronavirus and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus), participated in the SARS accelerated vaccine initiative and have ongoing projects on a MERS-CoV vaccine using an Alpaca model of the disease.

The Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre at the University of Saskatchewan is approved for the study of Risk Group 2 and 3 infectious diseases.
Photo: Submitted

For SARS-CoV-2, VIDO-InterVac was the first in Canada to isolate the virus, the first to develop animal models required to test the efficacy of vaccines, antivirals and therapeutics, and one of the first centres to be in animal trials with a candidate vaccine it developed.

Dr. Hodgson, who is in regular contact with the World Health Organization, says the scientists are using their previous experiences to help contribute to Canada’s and the world’s vaccine development and emergency preparedness.

The centre operates approximately $250 million in containment infrastructure. As an indicator of the scale of the facility, it can house about 160 cows for infection studies (e.g., tuberculosis) and have had studies in cattle, pigs, bison, deer, alpacas and ferrets.

Next steps

Several additional trials are planned for the next few months, including safety studies to prepare for human clinical trials this fall.

The Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre is ready to take their vaccine for COVID-19 to human trials.
Photo: Submitted

“The funding for the manufacturing facility allows VIDO-InterVac to conduct applied research right through to producing vaccines for humans and animals,” Dr. Hodgson explained.

And by manufacturing, he means good manufacturing practices (GMP), also referred to as cGMP or current good manufacturing practice, which “ensures that medicinal products are consistently produced and controlled to the quality standards appropriate to their intended use and as required by the product specification,” according to the World Health Organization.

Rewarding career

“Infectious diseases are one of the leading causes of mortality worldwide and disproportionately affect the developing world,” Dr. Hodgson noted.

“I travel frequently for work and have witnessed these disparities first-hand. Since vaccines are one of the most cost-effective means to control infectious diseases, being part of the leadership team for an organization that develops vaccines and will have the capacity to produce them is an incredibly rewarding experience.”

Dr. Hodgson moved to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1995 to pursue his PhD in hepatitis B pathogenesis at the Faculty of Medicine under the supervision of Dr. Thomas Michalak. He notes that this year marks the 25th anniversary of their first meeting.

His educational experience went well beyond his formal education, establishing long-term friendships. He also met his future wife, Darlene Slaney (MD’03), who was pursuing her honours research project, also in Dr. Michalak’s laboratory, at the time.

They now live in Saskatoon, Sask., with their three children, returning to Newfoundland and Labrador regularly to visit family and friends.

The couple says their experience at Memorial was so positive that they led the establishment of the Dr. Thomas Michalak Graduate Award in Medicine, to which almost all his former students contributed.

Last July they announced the scholarship at the Professor Thomas I. Michalak Mentorship Symposium held at the Faculty of Medicine.

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