With COVID-19 surging once again across the continent, Dr. Paul Kubes wishes the idled biosafety lab at the University of Calgary was up and running months ago.
“I wish we could have had it sooner,” said infectious disease researcher Kubes. “If we could have kept it open, we would have been ready to go in April.”
But with the arrival of the pandemic last March, engineers a month later began dusting off the lab in the Cumming School of Medicine that had been deactivated a decade ago when research funding dried up.
Its negative airflow sealing in potentially deadly pathogens gives it a Biosafety Level-3 status, meaning scientists can work safely uncovering COVID-19 treatments and vaccines without requiring the assistance of other sites.
That’s vital, said Kubes, but more important are the tools within it, most notably high-powered spinning disc and photon microscopes that enable researchers an intimate, real-time look at the behaviour of a virus capable of cleverly evolving.
One technique known as organ on a chip constructs the facsimile of a human lung onto which the virus is placed, he said.
“We’ll be able to look inside different organs and blood vessels, to see what immunity and pathogens are doing,” he said.
“Microscopic imaging and visualizing the virus allows the cells to glow so we know which ones are being infected.
One mystery the team of eight is hoping to unlock, said Kubes, is one that goes beyond the novel coronavirus’s impact on the lungs.
“People are dying from stroke, so what does that mean?” he said. “Is the virus entering the bloodstream? That’s what we’re looking at.”
With the timeline for the public introduction of a COVID-19 vaccine still uncertain, a big focus for the lab will be on discovering treatments for those made critically ill by the disease, said Kubes.
“People who end up in critical care need something now, to be saved … we think it’s really important to find something as quickly as possible.”
Even so, the lab will also be involved in studying the merits of vaccine candidates with a number of them lined up, said Kubes, adding, “we’re going to let as many people use it as possible.”
That work to be performed at the Snyder Institute of Chronic Diseases is being partly funded by $1.5 million from the federal government’s Western Economic Diversification Canada initiative.
“The pandemic’s far-reaching impact has highlighted the important role of medical research in protecting our communities and I’m proud that this facility will provide the critical infrastructure here in Calgary to bring health innovation to market,” said Melanie Joly, minister of economic development and official languages.
The funding, along with that from corporate participants and philanthropist Joan Snyder, should keep researchers toiling in the lab “for a couple of years at least,” said Kubes.
“TB is becoming a bigger and bigger problem (locally as well) … we have a TB clinic here because it’s so prevalent.
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University of Calgary, Coronavirus, Research
World news – THAT – Mothballed U of C lab resuscitated to fight COVID-19