Harnessing cancer-fighting viruses to develop a COVID-19 vaccine

June 25, 2020

“COVID-19 is a novel virus, so we don’t know which vaccine strategy will work best. We need to try everything we have," said Dr. Carolina Ilkow, scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa.

Drs. Carolina Ilkow, John Bell and colleagues are harnessing their expertise in making oncolytic (cancer-fighting) viruses to develop a vaccine against COVID-19, in partnership with scientists and clinicians in Canada and around the world. One of the key things they’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.

They have developed a number of viruses that are very good at boosting the immune system and have already been tested safely in people. These viruses will be reengineered by splicing in key genes from the COVID-19 virus to create several candidate vaccines, which would train the body to mount an immune response against COVID-19. They expect this live vaccine will be particularly important for health care workers and vulnerable populations, including people with cancer. Once the vaccine is created, large quantities can be made in The Ottawa Hospital’s Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre.

“We know that people with cancer who get COVID-19 are much more likely to get severely ill, so we think that working on a vaccine is the best thing we can do right now to help cancer patients,” said Dr. John Bell, senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa.

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa. 

Media Contact 

Amelia Buchanan
Senior Communication Specialist
Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
Office: 613-798-5555 x 73687
Cell: 613-297-8315


Disease and research area tags: COVID-19, Infectious disease, Viral therapy

Scientific Program tags: Cancer Research Program