Gary Kobinger has been chasing vaccines since childhood.
Growing up in Quebec City in the early 1990s, he remembers being galvanized to action by documentaries about people infected with HIV-AIDS – back when the illness was still new, mysterious and terrifying.
“In my mind, as a teenager, this was unacceptable. So I decided this was where I would put my energy.”
That energy carried him through medical school in Montreal to research in Philadelphia, where he zeroed in on the Ebola virus, whose strongest strain kills nine of every 10 people infected. The hemorrhagic fever was made famous decades ago in the public imagination for its gruesome, bloody symptoms.
And global travel and commerce mean it’s only a plane ride away.
“Ebola is still the most dangerous and virulent infectious agent out there,” Dr. Kobinger says. “You take the biggest and the toughest and you try to bring it down, with the rationale that if it works against Ebola, it’ll work against other things.”
Today, Dr. Kobinger is back in Canada as head of vector design and immunotherapy at Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory. Winnipeg has been the locus of Canada’s defence against disease since the 1990s. This facility – part of the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health – is home to the highest-security biology lab in the country.
Now, Dr. Kobinger and his colleagues are ready to test their creation on humans.
Next month, they’ll meet with Health Canada to set the stage for the first human testing of an Ebola vaccine they say is more potent than any similar vaccine in development, and the only one shown to cure animal subjects up to 24 hours after exposure. If all goes well, the next steps are commercialization of the vaccine through Toronto-based Defyrus Inc. and clinical-grade manufacture at McMaster University in Hamilton.
With defending against virulent diseases a high priority worldwide, news of a possible vaccine has created buzz within the research community. Gary Nabel, director of the U.S. National Institute of Health’s vaccine research centre in Bethesda, Md., is skeptical about some of the ambitious claims behind the Canadian vaccine – but he’s unequivocal about the importance of finding an effective treatment for the virus.
“This is high on the radar screen for bio-defence. It’s transmitted human-to-human; it’s high-mortality; it’s been weaponized,” he says. “It’s the threat that it could pose if it got into the wrong place that is the concern.”
When Dr. Kobinger moved back to Canada in 2005, he brought his Ebola research with him. He found a receptive audience with Canada’s Public Health Agency, which provided start-up funds, and whose facilities his team uses. More significantly, though, he got financial support from Ottawa’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Research and Technology Initiative, part of the Department of National Defence’s research arm and the source of more than half of the Ebola project’s funding so far.
The challenge now is to keep that funding going. DND’s research arm, Defence Research and Development Canada, was hit hard by cuts in March’s federal budget; microbiology research is not high on its agenda. In an e-mailed response to The Globe and Mail on the question of funding, Marc Fortin, CEO of the research arm, said that “areas of highest priority” for the organization are cyber security and the Arctic. “Other areas now require less DRDC support.”
That appears to spell trouble for ambitious bio-security projects such as the Ebola vaccine, although Dr. Kobinger insists the military research arm behind his project is “very excited” about the progress they’re making: “They’ve been talking about this project as a poster child.” Still, he admits he’s concerned about future funding commitments.
“There’s a significant amount of money involved.”
So Dr. Kobinger’s job is part salesman: He needs to make a convincing argument for his research.
“What works against Ebola infection works against a lot of infectious agents. We’re laying down the foundation for a future generation of vaccines.”