Nov. 22, 2022

Canada Foundation for Innovation awards UCalgary almost $10M for lab upgrade to study pathogens

Researchers will study SARS-CoV-2 and tuberculosis in vivo at level 3 containment lab
Paul Kubes
Paul Kubes University of Calgary files

The University of Calgary has been awarded a $9.82-million Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) grant to upgrade the containment level three (CL3) lab where researchers will study SARS-CoV-2, tuberculosis and other pathogens, inside live animal models. The lab, one of only a few CL3 facilities in Canada, requires stringent containment equipment and protocols.

“We are very grateful to receive this funding. This is going to revolutionize what we can do,” says Dr. Paul Kubes, PhD, member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine. UCalgary’s will be the only CL3 in North America with capacity to visualize pathogens inside the body and cells.

The information we derive from our level three is really unique because no one else can do the imaging we can do in level three.

Rather than studying a pathogen in a single cell, Kubes and his team use sophisticated two-photon microscopy to study a pathogen in vivo — inside a live animal model — to see, in real time, how it effects the body. 

“You understand exactly what the virus is doing inside the bloodstream, inside the lungs, inside the brain,” says Kubes. “This allows us to understand how the virus is changing the body and what we need to do to prevent these things from happening.”

The university’s existing CL3 lab was mothballed a decade ago and put back into limited service when the pandemic struck so Kubes and others could research SARS-CoV-2.  Kubes and his team visualized what was happening in the lungs, discovering that SARS-CoV-2 infects the endothelium, the lining of blood vessels, leading to inflammation and blood clotting. The researchers created a new drug that blocked some of the inflammation and could prevent patients from needing intensive care. The drug is in phase three clinical trials with patients.

Researchers will study long COVID and drug-resistant tuberculosis

With the updated lab, Kubes and team will continue to study SARS-CoV-2 and long COVID. “We will be able to look and see what happens, post-infection in the brain, in the heart, in the lungs, and find the virus’s lingering effects: Are they in the brain and that's why we have brain fog? Or are they in the cardiovascular system and we're getting underperformance of the brain? Is it the bloodstream we should be targeting or something else? Without looking inside the body, you can't make any conclusions about what's going on,” he says.

The Snyder Institute has also recruited researchers to the lab to study tuberculosis (TB), a disease that kills 1.5 million people a year. “We think TB is going to be a big problem,” he says. “As more Canadians get TB and not all of them continue to take their antibiotics it's becoming a bigger and bigger problem. Strains of TB are becoming drug resistant, and we really have to find new ways of tackling these pathogens, otherwise we're going to be in dire straits.”

Kubes, a former director of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases, has spent decades developing live cell imaging to look inside the body of organisms such as mice to visualize what a pathogen is doing. The Snyder Institute, with more than 480 qualified researchers, clinicians and trainees, is focused on developing tailored medical applications to ease the burden of chronic and infectious disease.

UCalgary 1 of 8 facilities to receive CFI grant

This CFI grant is one of eight awards given to facilities across Canada through the new Biosciences Research Infrastructure Fund (BRIF). The program is designed to support containment facilities capable of working with pathogens in post-secondary institutions and research hospitals.

“To continue protecting the health and safety of Canadians, Canada’s post-secondary institutions and research hospitals require innovative research spaces and biocontainment facilities,” says François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and industry.

“This investment, guided by the Biomanufacturing and Life Sciences Strategy, will help build Canada’s talent pipeline and research systems to grow a competitive domestic life sciences sector, with cutting-edge biomanufacturing capabilities.”  

“The COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrated the importance of cutting-edge research in infectious diseases,” says CFI’s president and CEO, Roseann O’Reilly Runte. “Ensuring labs meet standards and are well equipped to combat new challenges in biosciences will contribute to a healthy future for Canadians.”