Dr. Lorne Babiuk

University of Alberta
Researcher of the month: 
Mar 2010

Lorne Babiuk likes a challenge. That’s why Babiuk, a leader in Canadian vaccine research, jumped at the opportunity to shepherd a project that would qualify for one of the Grand Challenges in Global Health grants that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offered.

The Foundation sought bold ideas, unorthodox thinking and innovative proposals to tackle health problems killing large numbers of people in the developing world. Bold, unorthodox and innovative – three adjectives that apply to much of Babiuk’s career. The virologist was quick to submit a project to develop a vaccine to prevent whooping cough (pertussis) in infants and young children – delivered in a single dose, without using a needle. Currently, children require five doses of the vaccine to be fully protected. Children in the developing world almost never get all the boosters, says Babiuk.

In 2005, Babiuk, who was then the director of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO), was one of only three Canadian researchers to qualify for a Gates challenge grant. The VIDO team received $5.6 million US over five years. Since then, Babiuk has pressed forward with development of the vaccine, in addition to his new duties as vice-president of research at the University of Alberta.

“I’m happy to report that the concept is proving to be correct,” says Babiuk, in a telephone interview from Edmonton.

Although Babiuk and his colleagues are still a year or two away from beginning clinical trials, they have already developed an animal model and demonstrated that they can deliver their vaccine in mice and pigs.

That’s the kind of success those who know Babiuk have come to expect. Earlier in his career, he was an instrumental leader in a research consortium that developed and began testing a vaccine for SARS within 18 months of the outbreak in Canada.

Babiuk, 64 is convinced that preventative medicine is the best use of health care resources. He points to the innovation that the polio vaccine produced by replacing iron lungs and saving millions of lives, and the potential for preventing cancers that the HPV vaccine has illuminated. “It just shows how vaccines have totally changed health care. That’s why I’m passionate about it,” Babiuk says.

Research into vaccines requires enormous patience, since it can take decades and hundreds millions of dollars to develop a single marketable product. It also takes unwavering persistence, because a researcher can devote years to a concept only to have it fail during Phase III (human) trials.

Babiuk, who has received the Order of Canada and the Prix Galien Canada Research Award for his work, is prepared to invest the patience and persistence required. Hooked on research after his first summer job as an agriculture student at the University of Saskatchewan, Babiuk decided then that he did not want to return to run the family farm near Canora, SK. Although he was always interested in medicine, he found research “much more exciting.” After completing a Master’s in soil microbiology, he earned his Ph.D. in virology from the University of British Columbia, as well as a D.Sc. from the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Veterinary Microbiology.

In addition to SARS and whooping cough, Babiuk has spearheaded research into the herpes virus, the respiratory syncitial virus, and created a vaccine against rotavirus in calves, which allowed subsequent researchers to develop a vaccine for rotavirus in children.

Currently, he spends his weekends writing manuscripts and reviewing graduate theses, in addition to the long hours he puts in as a university administrator and researcher. The manuscripts and the grants have not been his greatest professional reward, however, Babiuk reserves that for his graduate students. “It’s the reward you get from seeing all of these young inquisitive minds that come into the lab and blossom. That’s a reward that you can’t buy anywhere.”

306 966-7475