Globe and Mail: Governor General’s Innovation Awards: How six Canadian breakthroughs are making a difference worldwide
Established in 2016, the Governor General’s Innovation Awards aim to inspire Canadians to embrace innovation and emulate entrepreneurial risk-takers whose creations have a meaningful impact on our quality of life. In their third year, six awards recognized a doctor whose technology helps give voice to the voiceless, an innovative funding regime for First Nations communities, an internationally acclaimed program that helps children develop empathy, a global early warning system for dangerous infectious diseases, cutting edge technology used to treat the Ebola virus, and a team whose dedication to identifying a rare gene mutation is now saving lives.
Gary Kobinger and Xiangguo Qiu
Innovation: An Ebola virus therapy that uses the patient’s immune system to fight back
Following the U.S. anthrax attacks in the wake of 9/11, experts in infectious disease began to voice fears that a weaponized strain of a dangerous microbe might one day be unleashed on an unsuspecting public.
At the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Xiangguo Qiu was working off the beaten track in a quest for something the world urgently needed: an effective treatment for Ebola. Her approach involved monoclonal antibodies, proteins engineered to recognize and fasten onto the deadly virus, shutting down its ability to proliferate in the host’s body. Previous efforts had failed and many experts considered the approach a dead end.
Gary Kobinger, another scientist based at the Winnipeg lab, disagreed. His own research suggested a host’s immune system can fight off Ebola when given a chance to do so. An injection of the right antibodies might buy time for the body’s natural defenses to work.
When budget cuts threatened Dr. Qiu’s work in 2010, Dr. Kobinger, who by then was leading the lab’s special pathogens program, knew it was time to put her findings to the test. Following positive results with rodents, the team administered a cocktail of antibodies to monkeys who had been infected with Ebola. The monkeys survived.
Today their work, in combination with discoveries in other labs, has led directly to the emergency Ebola therapy known as ZMapp. The first human test came during the 2014 Ebola outbreak when two American aid workers infected with the disease were given the drug. Both recovered, pulled back from the brink of death. Results from a clinical trial conducted the following year suggest the drug works, but with the outbreak already waning it was too late to prove this.
While both Drs. Qui and Dr. Kobinger have moved on to other aspects of Ebola research, the ZMapp story continues. The World Health Organization is currently seeking approval to administer the therapy in the Democratic Republic of Congo in an effort to hold back the current outbreak there.
Dr. Kobinger, who has since moved to Laval University, left for the Congo on Tuesday to help trace the outbreak’s origins. He said it was teamwork that allowed him and Dr. Qui to advance their original work ahead of other teams around the globe.
“We were so fast and in-sync when we were in thinking about how to move those antibodies forward,” he said. “It’s like a rock band. The individual musicians may be great but not as magical as when you put them together.”
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