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World-class research lab branches out

Photograph of the new International Vaccine Centre building at the University of Saskatchewan

Construction of the new International Vaccine Centre (InterVac), which will improve VIDO’s capacity to serve the country’s medical needs.

When Canadians faced the unknown threat posed by severe acute respiratory disease (SARS) in 2003, health officials turned to a consortium of research groups, including the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO), for help. The non-profit research centre, based at the University of Saskatchewan, was a logical player in the race to find a vaccine. But the results of the consortium’s work couldn’t be tested at home. Instead, they were sent to the United States.

It was the same story with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad-cow disease. VIDO teams offered unparalleled research, but they had no capacity for testing vaccines or other intervention strategies. So again, a need was left unmet.

That shortcoming is scheduled to be a thing of past, said Dr. Andrew Potter, VIDO’s director and CEO. The difference is a new $140-million research complex to be known as the International Vaccine Centre. Construction and outfitting of InterVac, as it’s known, is nearing completion. It should be finished by the end of the year and open for business in early 2011. When it is, VIDO will grow from 160 staff and students to over 200. More importantly, it will include a biosafety level  3 containment facility, one that can accommodate not just lab mice, but animals as large as cattle.

“In order to take research right from square one to the end, you have to study the pathogen,” said Potter. The level 3 rating allows researchers to handle tuberculosis, the SARS and West Nile viruses, and other pathogens that can be fatal to humans, and for which treatments are not known. This is second only to Level 4, which is designed for disease-causing organisms which are typically not normally seen in Canada and for which no adequate treatment exists, such as the ebola virus. InterVac, “will make us the top institute in the world in our field in terms of capacity,” said Potter.

Not that VIDO doesn’t already enjoy a reputation for excellence. Thanks to the collaborative,  interdisciplinary work environment fostered by the University of Saskatchewan – there is a veterinary college, an agricultural college and a medical school, all next door – VIDO has always been able to attract top people to its labs. “We’ve got one of everything,” said Potter. “There’s even a college of law, which is increasingly important in our field, and a school of public health, which draws on many other disciplines.”

The new building – which has been in the works for six years is being funded with $57 million from the province, $250,000 from the city of Saskatoon, and $49 million from the federal government - much of that in the form of support for capital costs and equipment from WD. The funding will make a big difference to VIDO’s capacity to serve the country’s medical needs, for both humans and animals. When it came to the most recent health threat to dominate the agenda, pandemic flu, the gap between what’s needed and what’s possible to do was frustratingly wide, Potter said. “We can do a little bit now, but not nearly what we want to be able to.”

Ultimately, VIDO researchers are hoping to shift their focus from responding to public health threats as they arise to developing tools the medical community can use to anticipate and react to emerging viruses. Said Potter: “We can make some pretty good guesses as to what the threats may or may not be, but what we really need is the technological platform to able to act quickly in the face of new threats.”