Vaccine research could put end to flu

Carleton chemistry assistant professor Jeffrey Smith and his research team have received almost $800,000 in grants to examine how to boost flu vaccine manufacturing. (Christopher King Photo)

“Keep working.” The words might as well be Jeffrey Smith’s mantra.

They’re the words his wife’s uncle has said to him ever since his wife’s aunt was diagnosed with cancer.

They’re the words he’s internalized, as he continues his ground-breaking, disease-fighting research.

“That really brings it home for me,” says Smith, who is involved in dual efforts to fight cancer and eradicate the flu.

Half of his mission just got some big help. Smith and his team received $789,160 in grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada for research into enhancing viral growth and to, ultimately, boost vaccine manufacturing.

As anyone who waits in line every fall for a flu shot knows, efforts to eradicate influenza have always been a bit of a “cat and mouse game,” says Smith.

Unlike diseases like chicken pox or polio, the flu virus constantly mutates. As soon as the current strain has been identified and a shot has been developed, it has already changed. More troubling, it takes about five to six months for a vaccine to become available after a strain of influenza with pandemic potential is identified, according to the World Health Organization.

Smith’s team is looking to essentially tighten up the process of predicting viruses and targeting vaccines in order to eradicate viruses before they have time to change. Their approach? Taking production from the farm to the lab. Vaccines are currently produced in chicken eggs. They’re investigating the possibility of using cell cultures instead.

During the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, vaccine distribution was slow and in short supply, hindered in part by the less-than-perfect egg culture process. At least 18,000 have died from the virus to date – with some estimates putting that number as high as 579,000.

In Canada, only about 10 per cent of the population has been infected with the virus, leading to at least 428 deaths.

“Ultimately we’re trying to do a better job than eggs,” says Smith. “(Cell cultures) are a lot more tightly controlled and . . . the vaccine that comes out at the end is a lot more easy to regulate.”

So why don’t we already make vaccines this way? Smith says, unfortunately, it all comes down to cost.

With such high demand and such a quick turnaround required, a new system just isn’t economically feasible, he says.

“We’re investigating ways to make (a cell culture system) economically feasible now.”

Smith’s goal is ambitious but he looks forward to the day when “the human race can say we no longer worry about this disease.

“We want our work to be a benefit to mankind.”

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Daniel Reid

By Daniel Reid

Whether it’s scientific breakthroughs, political manoeuvres or loaded technical jargon, Daniel Reid loves to untangle complex ideas to make them accessible to everyone. He is currently an editor at @newsrooms and is a former web editor at @CTVNews and homepage editor at @TheLoopCA. You can argue with him on Twitter at @ahatrack.

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