Researchers in Ottawa are now part of the worldwide race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, and they’re using what they’ve learned on their hunt for a cancer cure as their road map.
The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute team received a $250,000 grant from the Thistledown Foundation, a charity founded by the Ottawa entrepreneur and Shopify founder Tobi Lütke and his wife Fiona McKean.
The effort is a joint project between researchers John Bell and Carolina Ilkow. Bell is senior scientist in the cancer therapeutics program at the institute and a professor at the University of Ottawa. He spoke to Robyn Bresnahan on CBC’s Ottawa Morning. Their interview is edited for length.
What does it feel like to be working on a vaccine right now for COVID-19?
It’s really exciting. We want to be part of the solution to this problem that’s affected the whole world. My team has been working on this for about a month and a half now, 24 hours a day, trying to get something that will be a useful vaccine to help stop this pandemic.
Where do you start?
It’s a good question. My group, along with my colleague, Dr. Carolina Ilkow, has worked for many years to try to develop virus-based therapeutics to treat cancer. One of the things we’ve learned is that you can use these viruses to stimulate the immune system of a cancer patient. So our thinking when this pandemic broke was maybe we can use the same ideas and the same technology to generate immune responses against the virus that’s causing the COVID-19 pandemic.
So you can fight a virus with a virus?
That’s basically it. We take a very benign virus and we use that as a vaccine. We paint that virus with proteins that come from the virus which is causing the pandemic in the first place, and so it basically vaccinates the person and makes them think they’re infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, but they’re not. They’ve actually just been treated with a very benign virus. And so their immune system then responds, and if the COVID virus comes by [their immune system] recognizes it right away and eliminates it.
Does the virus that you might treat COVID-19 with — does it have to be stronger or weaker than the COVID-19 virus?
It’s actually a virus which doesn’t really cause any pathology or sickness in people at all. It’s a very benign virus that’s been used for hundreds of years to vaccinate people and prevent them from getting other diseases. It’s a bit of a Trojan Horse. It goes in there and convinces the immune system that [the body] is being infected with a more potent virus. It’s really just a matter of disguising that virus to make it look like the one that causes COVID-19. You then develop an immune response against it, and if the COVID-19 virus comes by you’re already immune to it.
There are so many scientists around the world that are racing to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. As far as you know, are you the first team that’s using what you know about cancer to translate this onto COVID-19?
Yes, I think we’re probably the only ones who are using exactly the kinds of technology that we’ve developed to try to make a vaccine. But as you point out, lots of people are racing toward this. It’s a great thing actually, because we’re going to come to the solution eventually, whether it’s from us or from the group in the U.K. or elsewhere. We’re all learning from each other about what’s working and what’s not working. In some ways it’s united scientists around the world in a common cause. It doesn’t matter if it’s our vaccine or someone else’s — whatever works — that’s what we’re going to be happy about .
Now that you and your team are focusing on this what does that mean for your cancer research?
We’re learning from what we’re doing with making a vaccine for COVID-19 and we’re applying that back to our cancer research. So although in a way we’ve had to step back a little bit, it’s the same people working hard and learning as we go along. I’m hoping that we’ll get more information from this approach and that will hopefully accelerate what we’re doing to try to develop cures for cancer.
You couldn’t do this without funding. What was your reaction on learning it was coming from people within your own city?
That was very cool. A shout out to Tobi and Fiona for stepping up and putting money into a large pot that was really available to everybody around the world. We had to compete for this and it was a process that involved experts from around the world looking at our proposal. So we feel very fortunate to have gotten it. But I think it’s great they stepped up and said, “Here’s something we can do.”
If your team succeeds in helping to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 what would that mean to you?
Anybody would be totally thrilled, if that’s how it turns out. The people on my team really deserve a shout-out for all the work they do every single day in a very difficult situation. I would be very proud of what they’ve done to actually achieve this goal, if we get there.