Late last winter, as COVID-19 was fast becoming a global health emergency, John Vederas had an idea.
A chemistry professor at the University of Alberta, Prof. Vederas was part of a team in 2003 that worked on a drug intended to fight SARS – another coronavirus-caused disease that threatened to become a global pandemic. SARS, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome, fortunately, was stamped out by public-health measures, and the drug, which prevents the coronavirus causing SARS from replicating in human cells, wasn’t needed. But in the years that followed, that research formed the basis for a new drug – for cats.
“Feline infectious peritonitis is a fatal disease caused by a coronavirus in cats,” says Joanne Lemieux, a professor of biochemistry at U of A. “I don’t want to say it’s pretty big business, but that’s exactly what it is. There’s a huge market for people who have sick animals.”
In 2003, Prof. Lemieux was a postdoctoral fellow working alongside Prof. Vederas at the U of A. Today, she runs her own lab at the university, and when COVID-19 emerged, Prof. Vederas suggested they work together to see if the feline drug might work – in humans – against the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
“We took on board a virologist here, Lorne Tyrrell,” Prof. Lemieux says, “and because we’re all here on campus, when everything else was shut down due to COVID-19, we were able within months to demonstrate that this worked in a live virus. Now we’re trying to make that drug even more effective.”
U.S. veterinary medicine company Anivive Lifesciences will soon launch clinical trials in humans. If successful, Prof. Lemieux says, it may become an effective treatment for COVID-19 patients in hospitals and long-term care homes.
With more than $700,000 in federal funding, Prof. Lemieux’s is one of 96 projects across the country that’s benefited so far from the federal government’s investments in COVID-19 research. And it’s only one of countless efforts aimed at COVID-19 that have emerged in the past few months on Canadian campuses, where existing research is finding new life, and promising partnerships between industry, government and student researchers are helping develop new tools for the frontline fight against the pandemic.
These efforts give university students a chance to see how their studies can have a huge impact on the world around them and the potential pathway for their future.
At the University of Toronto, Keith Pardee, an assistant professor in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, along with postdoctoral fellows Masoud Norouzi and Margot Karlikow, is also tweaking a technology with origins in a prior public-health scare: 2016′s Zika outbreaks. Several years ago, Prof. Pardee and collaborators at other institutions developed a “lab in a box,” designed to test for Zika rapidly and in communities without access to more sophisticated testing equipment. The technology was deployed in Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia.
The standard tests used by governments and public-health agencies to detect disease use polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which allows a small sample of DNA to be replicated millions of times, allowing for detailed analysis. The hitch is that it requires a reliable supply chain of materials, a dedicated laboratory and trained diagnostic staff.
Prof. Pardee’s test can detect viral RNA quickly and doesn’t require expert knowledge to interpret the results.
“Two students in my lab developed this device that’s about the size of a toaster,” Prof. Pardee says, “and it can do pretty much everything we can do in the lab, but at a fraction of the cost. And that’s what we’re using for COVID-19.”
Those two students – Yuxiu (Livia) Guo and Seray Çiçek – went on to found LSK Technologies, a Toronto-based health-tech startup that provides a prime example as to how university research can turn into real-world tools, really fast. LSK is further developing and commercializing the product, under the moniker PLUM. In February, LSK won the annual pitch competition held by Velocity, a Kitchener-Waterloo tech incubator, receiving $100,000, the largest amount ever awarded.
“Our primary objective is building capacity in settings that would normally have to ship the samples elsewhere,” Prof. Pardee says. “Globally these could be low and some middle-income countries without a lot of capacity, and in Canada it could be distributed at a community level, like a school, or large workplaces, ports of entry. Anywhere a lot of people and contact is happening.”
Pandemic response isn’t limited to treatments and testing, of course. Public-health measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 have become a source of fraught debate. That’s where a project called The Looking Glass: Protecting Canadians in a Return to Community, aims to bring machine learning and predictive analytics to bear. It brings together researchers at Queen’s University and the University of Saskatchewan with a host of private-sector partners in artificial intelligence and computing. It is partly supported by $1.3-million from the federal government, through the Digital Technology Supercluster.
“We’re trying to develop a model that will show what the consequence of different public-health interventions could be,” says Troy Day, a professor of mathematics at Kingston’s Queen’s University who specialized in mathematical biology. “Whether that’s masks in public, shutting down certain businesses, and that sort of thing.”
Prof. Day, along with fellow mathematics professor Felicia Magpantay, is developing a model that can help explore the epidemiological side of things. At the same time, others are working on the economic side, analyzing the financial implications of the same public-health measures.
OPTIONAL TRIM FOR PRINT: The project is being led by Kings Distributed Systems, a Kingston-based company that has developed a platform that spreads processing over the spare computing power found in idle computers in homes and businesses, rather than rely on major commercial data centres. That provides the computing resources to power the complex epidemiological and economic modelling that underpins the platform.
Ultimately, the idea will be to generate a map of the country, broken down by municipality, into which local policy makers will be able to input different public-health measures – physical distancing, opening or closing schools and businesses, increased testing – and model the consequences epidemiologically and economically. END OPTIONAL TRIM
To Prof. Day, the project is a case study in the power of collaboration between academia, government and the private sector – and between academic disciplines that don’t always talk much to one another.
“If it works it’ll be a really interesting combination of a lot of different people working to solve this coming problem,” he says. “Computer scientists, experts in economics, epidemiology. If this comes together the way we hope, it’ll be pretty amazing.”