Research VP wins top prize

UAlberta's vice-president of research has received a top international award for his extraordinary work in vaccine development.

By Deb Hammacher on March 21, 2012

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta’s Lorne Babiuk today was named a recipient of one of the world’s most prestigious international awards for research in medical science—the Gairdner Award—for his work in vaccine development.

Babiuk, the U of A’s vice-president of research, received the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award “for his extraordinary national and international leadership in vaccine development and research in human and veterinary infectious disease control,” according to the Gairdner Foundation, which announced the seven 2012 Gairdner Award recipients at a breakfast in Toronto. Babiuk is the only Canadian recipient. The Gairdner Award is widely considered a precursor to the Nobel Prize in science or medicine. 

The award includes a gift of $100,000.

Babiuk is a leading researcher in infectious diseases, particularly zoonotic diseases—those that pass from animals to humans—and is acclaimed for his work in vaccine development. In addition to his own research track record, he developed Canada’s leading vaccine development centre, the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO), in Saskatoon, affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan. Since joining the University of Alberta in 2007, he has been instrumental in the establishment of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology. The Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology was established in 2010 with the help of a $25-million gift from the Li Ka Shing (Canada) Foundation and $52.5 million from the Government of Alberta.  Mr. Li has been associated with Husky Energy since 1991.

Why is Babiuk’s work in infectious diseases so important? The World Health Organization estimates that approximately one third of all annual human deaths are caused by infectious diseases. These include everything from influenza, E. coli infection and whooping cough to HIV, SARS and hepatitis.

“I’ve always been interested in seeing how research can help society,” says Babiuk. “Vaccines, in my opinion, are one of the most effective ways to improve economic activity and quality of life while reducing rates of sickness and death. I wanted to do something that has relevance to people and society.

“What people don’t realize is that while there is a significant amount of illness and death from infectious disease, the economic losses are very significant as well,” says Babiuk, “including lost productivity and impaired trade in animal products as was seen for Canada with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as mad cow disease. Global losses due to infectious diseases are estimated to be in the billions of dollars annually.”

For example, early in his career Babiuk worked on rotavirus. This virus was seen by electron microscopy in animals and children suffering from acute diarrhea. He devised a new technique to grow the virus and then to develop a vaccine to control the disease in calves, which was costing the cattle industry approximately $300 million annually. This same technology was then used to produce a vaccine for children, when approximately 500,000 children died annually from rotavirus infection. As a result, the disease in humans is all but eliminated in North America and significant reduction is occurring globally.

VIDO scientists developed seven vaccines, five being world firsts, including the first genetically engineered vaccine for any animal species. Babiuk built VIDO from a few individuals to an internationally recognized institute with more than 170 researchers addressing many challenges of working with new and re-emerging diseases. He oversaw the fundraising and design of InterVac at VIDO, a $140-million level 3 bio-containment facility that is the largest of its kind in Canada. This facility was officially opened by the prime minister in September 2011, and has enabled researchers to work on highly infectious agents such as H1N1 influenza, and to develop vaccines that prevent infection at the site of entry—the mucosal surfaces.

Babiuk is now most interested in improving existing vaccines, most of which are given by needles. The shortage of needles in developing countries results in the re-use of needles, leading to infection. With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Grand Challenges program, Babiuk and his team have been able to develop a novel approach to deliver a whooping cough vaccine via the nose—the site of initial infection—without the use of needles. With this technique it was possible to immunize newborns, who generally respond poorly to conventional vaccination. Using the new formulation, the magnitude and the quality of the immune response both increased. This approach is now being used to improve other existing vaccines as well as develop new vaccines for diseases, such as respiratory syncytial virus infection in young children, where no current vaccine exists.

“Lorne is a visionary and a missionary. A brilliant scientist, Lorne’s achievements are the high-water mark in global excellence,” says U of A President Indira Samarasekera. “He inspires others; through humility and ability, he persuades people to believe in a dream, and he builds a team to go the distance. I congratulate him on being recognized as one of Canada’s intellectual giants; he brings honour to the U of A.”

Babiuk spent much of his career at the University of Saskatchewan, where he joined the faculty in 1973. In 1984 the scope of his work expanded to include roles with VIDO, including serving as director from 1993 to 2007. He held the Canada Research Chair in Vaccinology and Biotechnology from 2001 to 2007.

Since joining the U of A in July 2007, Babiuk is no longer involved in bench research, but continues to supervise a number of PhD candidates at both the U of S and the U of A, and is involved in a number of multi-institution research projects. He is a professor in three U of A faculties: Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences; School of Public Health; and Medicine & Dentistry.

He has been central to the development of the Helmholtz Alberta Initiative, a partnership between the University of Alberta and the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, Germany’s largest consortium of independent research institutes. Launched in 2009 with $25 million in support from the Government of Alberta, the Helmholtz Alberta Initiative began with collaborative work in energy and environment, particularly mining and oilsands, and recently began expanding into health research, including obesity and infectious diseases.

Babiuk is the second University of Alberta researcher to receive a Gairdner Award. The first was Raymond Lemieux, acclaimed for his work in synthesizing sucrose, who was recognized in 1985. Since the inception of the awards in 1959, 78 Gairdner recipients have gone on to receive a Nobel Prize.

Babiuk has three degrees from the University of Saskatchewan (B.S.A., 1967, soil science; M.Sc., 1969, soil microbiology; D.Sc., 1987, veterinary microbiology). He earned his PhD in virology from the University of British Columbia (1972), and has received honorary doctoral degrees from Colorado State University (2007) and the University of Guelph (2008).