News at Medicine - July 2020 - Anticipating a vaccination: Faculty of Medicine alum on the verge of human clinical trials

Anticipating a vaccination: Faculty of Medicine alum on the verge of human clinical trials
July 14, 2020
In a COVID world of uncertainty, anticipation is building for a vaccine.
Alumnus Dr. Paul Hodgson (PhD ’02), associate director at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac), may be on the cusp.
The team at VIDO-InterVac, one of the largest, most advanced containment facilities in the world able to conduct research on a COVID-19 vaccine, has secured over $50 million from the Government of Canada and the Government of Saskatchewan in the last few months for the cause. This includes establishing a manufacturing facility as well as funding to further develop their vaccine for human clinical trials. 
“I have been working on the manufacturing facility as a VIDO-InterVac strategic asset for a decade. It just took a pandemic to fully secure the funding,” Dr. Hodgson jokes.
On May 25, the VIDO-InterVac team announced that their COVID-19 vaccine candidate cleared a major milestone: It has proven highly effective in ferrets, a commonly used animal model for COVID-19. The pre-clinical results showed a strong immune response, generated neutralizing antibodies and decreased the virus in the upper respiratory tract to almost undetectable levels.
“It was an incredible feeling when we realized we had developed a vaccine that has the potential to help the entire world,” he said.

Head start advantage

The organization did have a head start. VIDO-InterVac, which is housed at the University of Saskatchewan, has been studying global outbreaks of both Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), both caused by coronaviruses, for two decades.
The organization has commercialized two animal coronavirus vaccines (bovine coronavirus and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus), participated in the SARS accelerated vaccine initiative and have ongoing projects on a MERS-CoV vaccine using an Alpaca model of the disease.
For SARS-CoV-2, VIDO-InterVac was the first in Canada to isolate the virus, the first to develop animal models required to test the efficacy of vaccines, antivirals and therapeutics and one of the first to be in animal trials with a candidate vaccine they developed.
Dr. Hodgson, who is in regular contact with the World Health Organization, said the scientists are using knowledge gained from SARS and MERS to help contribute to Canada’s and the world’s vaccine development and emergency preparedness.
The centre operates approximately $250 million in containment infrastructure. As an indicator of the scale of the facilities, they can house about 160 cows for infection studies (e.g., Tuberculosis) and have had studies in cattle, pigs, bison, deer, alpacas and ferrets.


Next steps

Several additional trials are planned over the next few months, including safety studies to prepare for human clinical trials this fall. 
“The funding for the manufacturing facility allows VIDO-InterVac to conduct applied research right through to producing vaccines for humans and animals,” he explained.
And by ‘manufacturing,’ Dr. Hodgson means Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), also referred to as cGMP or current Good Manufacturing Practice, which ‘ensures that medicinal products are consistently produced and controlled to the quality standards appropriate to their intended use and as required by the product specification,’ according to the World Health Organization.

Rewarding career

“Infectious diseases are one of the leading causes of mortality worldwide and disproportionately affect the developing world. I travel frequently for work and have witnessed these disparities firsthand,” Dr. Hodgson notes. “Since vaccines are one of the most cost-effective means to control infectious diseases, being part of the leadership team for an organization that develops vaccines and will have the capacity to produce them is an incredibly rewarding experience.”

Dr. Hodgson moved to Newfoundland in 1995 to pursue his PhD in hepatitis B pathogenesis at the Faculty of Medicine under the supervision of Dr. Thomas Michalak, noting that this year marks the 25th anniversary of their first meeting.

His educational experience went well beyond his formal education, establishing long-term friendships. He also met his future wife, Darlene Slaney (MD ‘03) who was pursuing her honours research project, also in Dr. Michalak’s laboratory, at the time. They now live in Saskatoon, SK, with their three children, returning to Newfoundland regularly to visit family and friends.

The couple’s experience at Memorial was so positive in fact that they led the establishment of the Dr. Thomas Michalak Graduate Award in Medicine to which almost all his former students contributed. Last July they announced the scholarship at the Professor Thomas I. Michalak Mentorship Symposium held at the Faculty of Medicine.