McGill is home to some of the world’s leading authorities on treating highly infectious diseases, but the sudden rise and severe circumstances caused by COVID-19 have put their work into intense focus. The following is an overview of research activities underway at McGill and in partnership with other institutions to find vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tools for this deadly virus.
Initial reports of a flu-like virus originating in Wuhan, China began circulating as early as December 2019. Since that time, the disease has taken the world by storm, with cases multiplying with terrifying speed. The disease is one that the human body has no immunity to, and its specific mechanisms for propagation are not completely understood. As a result it spread undetected for several weeks, eventually reaching virtually every nation on the planet. What are McGill researchers doing in the face of this lethal disease?
“Canada’s researchers are some of the best in the world,” said the Honourable Patty Hajdu, Minister of Health on the occasion of a funding announcement for COVID-19 research earlier this month. “Protecting the health and well-being of all Canadians is our top priority, and the research conducted thanks to this funding will contribute to mitigating the outbreak of COVID-19.”
McGill researchers have long been recognized for being among the best in Canada, and they have been looking for preventative vaccines and effective treatments since the beginning of the outbreak. They have also been examining the various means by which the disease spreads, which includes the spread of information about the virus itself. Now that the illness has reached such acute proportions it is literally an all-hands-on-deck situation with dozens of Principal Investigators working on finding solutions. Here is a partial summary of some of these projects:
Professor Donald Sheppard, Chair of the Department of Immunology and Microbiology and Director of the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4), is working to bring field requests for resources, and bring together research projects and clinical trials. One of these is a national treatment trial for hospitalized patients with COVID-19, which examines several of the promising drug options and determine which one(s) are effective. Currently run out of the University of Toronto, trials at the Jewish General Hospital and the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) will potentially start next week, and many other Quebec hospitals are looking to join. MI4 researchers are also asking to collect patient samples so that they can innovate in terms of diagnostic and prognostic testing and the development of new therapies and vaccines. They are also collaborating with institutes in the USA to help treat sufferers and combat the spread of the virus. Other work on studying the role of microbiomes as a predictor of the severity of the disease is under investigation. There are more than 50 researchers committed to the fight against COVID-19 under the auspices of MI4. In addition to the funding received by individual units, Professor Sheppard’s team has received a $2,000,000 donation from the Hewitt family for its efforts.
Professor Brian Ward, Department of Medicine and Division of Experimental Medicine, is working with Medicago Inc., a Quebec-based firm that uses plants to produce vaccines and monoclonal antibodies. Professor Ward, who is the Chief Medical Officer at Medicago, has been working with company scientists to develop a COVID-19 virus-like particle vaccine from the day after Chinese authorities released the first genetic information for the novel coronavirus in mid-January. Medicago Inc. has received major grants from both the Quebec ($7,000,000) and Federal governments (part of the $192,000,000 announced earlier) to accelerate this vaccine development program. Professor Ward is also a MI4 Steering Committee member and is thus involved with the activities of that group.
Professor David Buckeridge, Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, is working with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop artificial intelligence methods for analyzing news on the internet to understand how communities and public health agencies around the world are responding to the coronavirus epidemic. These methods will help to understand the impact of the epidemic, identify effective strategies for controlling the epidemic, and contribute to improved global disease surveillance in the future. Professor Buckeridge will receive $500,000 over the next two years for his project.
Professor Nicolas Moitessier, Department of Chemistry, is investigating the use of a combination of computer calculations and laboratory testing to rapidly identify and validate molecules that block an enzyme that is essential to the coronavirus. The targeted enzyme, known as 3CLpro, is responsible for processing viral proteins into their active forms. The team will synthesize promising compounds and test them using a technique known as Isothermal Titration Calorimetry (ITC) to find molecules that are likely to prevent the virus from replicating and would have high value as new potential treatments. His research has been funded by a $203,000 grant through the Canadian 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding Opportunity.
Professor Amine Kamen, Department of Bioengineering and Canada Research Chair in Bioprocessing of Viral Vaccines, together with Denis Leclerc, of Laval University, is developing a nanoparticle-based vaccine candidate to protect against COVID-19. The use of nano-size particles will enable the creation of a product that can be stockpiled for a long period. The researchers will receive over $717,000 for the project development of a nanoparticle-based vaccine candidate to the SARS-CoV-2.
Professor Mark Trifiro, Department of Medicine, Division of Experimental Medicine, working with the Faculty of Engineering, has developed a revolutionary methodology to construct a portable diagnostic device. The testing platform would give results in minutes and would help enormously in infection control management of not only the current COVID-19 outbreak but also future pathogenic viral epidemics. He received $717,700 from the Canadian 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding Opportunity.
Professor Jian Hui Wu, Associate Professor of Oncology, will apply computational approaches by an array of experimental assays to screen the approved drug database of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in order to rapidly evaluate the best candidates to be redeployed against COVID-19. Since risk profiles have already been developed for approved drugs, the process of testing the efficacy of promising candidates could proceed more quickly and lead to faster approvals of viable drug candidates. Professor Wu received $480,000 from the COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity.
Professor Chen Liang, Department of Microbiology and Immunology and Acting Director of the McGill AIDS Centre, is investigating why COVID-19 is so pathogenic, so easy to transmit, and how this virus has jumped from animals to humans, and accordingly discover effective interventions to curb this escalating pandemic. Coronaviruses are not new to humans; the common cold is caused by coronaviruses. However, beginning with SARS in 2002, and MERS ten years later, more lethal versions have begun to emerge. Already, COVID-19 has infected, and killed, more people than the total of those two earlier outbreaks. Professor Liang received $480,000 from the Canadian 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding Opportunity.
Professor Reihaneh Rabbany, School of Computer Science and a Member of Mila is looking at the informational side of the spread of COVID-19. Using data mining, this research project aims to analyse mentions of COVID-19 on Twitter, in order to discover temporal and spatial trends as well as common mentions and keywords linked to the phenomena surrounding the global pandemic.
These projects are only a sample of what is currently underway, with many others in preliminary phases of investigation. Many more such inquiries will be made official in the coming weeks, as the McGill community concentrates its substantial pool of resources and talent to combat this lethal disease.