Cancer-killing viruses provide inspiration for COVID-19 vaccine

Ottawa researchers awarded $250,000 from Fast Grants in partnership with the Thistledown Foundation

April 28, 2020

Dr. Carolina Ilkow“COVID-19 is a novel virus, so we don’t know which vaccine strategy will work best. We need to try everything we have." - Dr. Carolina Ilkow While physical distancing has slowed the spread of COVID-19, the vast majority of people around the world remain susceptible to the virus. That’s why most experts believe we won’t be able to fully find a new normal until a vaccine is developed.  

At The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa, Dr. Carolina Ilkow and Dr. John Bell are harnessing their pioneering research on cancer-fighting viruses to create a vaccine for COVID-19, in partnership with colleagues across the country and around the world. 

“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. “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. Dr. John Bell " We’ve developed a number of viruses that are very good at immune stimulation, that have already been tested safely in people.”- Dr. John Bell

“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.” 

The team also includes Dr. Douglas Mahoney and his team at the University of Calgary, and Dr. Zhou Xing and Dr. Brian Lichty and their teams, both at McMaster University. Many of the researchers are working around the clock, carefully practicing physical distancing while in the lab. 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.

Fast Grants has awarded $250,000 to Dr. Bell and Dr. Ilkow for this research. It is just one of 23 COVID-19 grants issued to Canadian research institutions, after a rapid review by a panel of biomedical experts. The Thistledown Foundation, established by Fiona McKean and her husband Tobi Lütke, founder of Ottawa-based Shopify, provided $5 million to back these awards. Funding was awarded and transferred to researchers within days compared to the many months usually required for traditional grant competitions. 

“We are fortunate in Canada that the federal government is investing in COVID-19 research, but this is a time for all hands on deck, said McKeanTobi and I jumped at the opportunity to support Canadian research institutions through our partnership with Fast Grants. Dr. Bell and Dr. Ilkow’s project went from approved to money in the bank within 24 hours – that’s the speed by which things need to happen right now.”  

“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 just one of more than 50 COVID-19 research projects currently being explored at The Ottawa Hospital. These projects rely on shared research equipment, resources and facilities that have been developed over many years, thanks to generous support from donors through The Ottawa Hospital Foundation 

 The Ottawa Hospital is one of Canada’s top learning and research hospitals, where excellent care is inspired by research and driven by compassion. As the third-largest employer in Ottawa, our support staff, researchers, nurses, physicians, and volunteers never stop seeking solutions to the most complex health-care challenges. Our multi-campus hospital, affiliated with the University of Ottawa, attracts some of the most influential scientific minds from around the world. Backed by generous support from the community, we are committed to providing the world-class, compassionate care we would want for our loved ones. 

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Amelia Buchanan 
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Ottawa Hospital Research Institute 
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