Virology Laboratory

Virology and vaccine research

Immunization and vaccines have contributed greatly to preventing diseases and improving health. Each year, new vaccines are developed to help protect against certain diseases. At the Centre for Vaccine Evaluation (CVE), scientists have developed expertise in various new scientific techniques that help provide new tools for evaluating vaccines.

 

Why we study viruses and vaccines

We are exposed to viruses every day. Some are harmful to humans and some are not. To identify which viruses have the potential to cause diseases and how to prevent them from causing harm to people, scientists at the Centre for Vaccine Evaluation (CVE) examine information from different fields. They look at trends from population statistics and computer analyses, as well as detailed cellular and molecular data. Recent advances in technology provide valuable new approaches and tools for investigating how viruses change and evolve. Technology helps identify the mode of action and properties of viruses, so that scientists can design strategies to prevent them from causing disease. Vaccines are developed to help the body protect itself from viruses. By understanding what viruses do to the body and how vaccines work, we can obtain valuable information on improving, developing and evaluating vaccines.

 

How we study viruses and vaccines

At the Centre for Vaccine Evaluation (CVE), scientists investigate a wide range of health questions relating to viruses, vaccines and immune responses against viruses. For instance, in collaboration with other scientists, they have identified key parts of the influenza virus and developed reagents that help Health Canada quickly and effectively test new influenza vaccines. The scientists use techniques from fields such as molecular and cell biology, as well as medicine and bioinformatics. The team conducts scientific research in various areas including the molecular structure of viruses and vaccines, and the genetic profile of viruses. They also develop methods to detect pathogens that cause disease and investigate immune responses against these pathogens.

Some highlights of the research in this area include:

  • Investigating the molecular structure of viruses and the mechanisms underlying viral diseases to provide insights into new ways to prevent and treat infectious diseases;
  • Developing innovative methods for evaluating the vaccines that Health Canada and other governments regulate for safety and efficacy.

 

Concepts and tools we use to study viruses and vaccines

Virology is the study of viruses and viral diseases. In this broad field, the Centre for Vaccine Evaluation (CVE) works to characterize the growth, culture and structure of viruses. The Centre's scientists perform research to answer questions such as:

  • How do viruses interact with, and infect, organisms?
  • How do genetic changes in viruses impact the ability of a virus to cause a disease?
  • How do viruses evolve?
  • Can viruses be used for therapeutic applications?

Viruses are tiny infectious agents that need a living host cell in order to be active and replicate. They can vary greatly in shape, but are typically composed of genetic material in the form of DNA or RNA. This genetic material is protected by a protein coat and, in some cases, a protective fatty envelope. The study of viruses and virus-like agents can be challenging as it applies knowledge and techniques from various fields such as genetics, cell and molecular biology, immunology, pathology, genomics and proteomics.

Scientists use bioinformatics to examine molecular data. This is considered to be a powerful approach for examining the complex issues of virology. With bioinformatics, they can screen and study large sets of data to analyse the composition and structure of viruses, proteins, DNA and RNA. Sorting through these complex data helps them understand how viruses function, evolve and change. Scientists learn how the viruses interact with other organisms, and they study patterns to see relationships between structure and function. Research from molecular biology, bioinformatics and other fields generate valuable information for developing methods for diagnosing, treating and preventing viral diseases, as well as potential therapeutic applications of viruses. For example, by looking at the structure and function of components of viruses, scientists can identify sites that may represent the basis for potential vaccines and functions that may respond to anti-viral treatments.

At the Centre for Vaccine Evaluation (CVE), scientists carry out research on various types of vaccines and find new tools to analyse them. Vaccines are designed to contain antigenic components that help the immune system identify later infection by those same bacteria and viruses, so that the body can fight them off more effectively. In the case of viruses, vaccines contain structural components of the virus that stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies that recognize them. Then, if a person is later exposed to this virus, the antibodies are ready to help the immune system rapidly destroy and eliminate the virus.

Vaccines can be administered using different delivery methods. For example, health professionals can deliver vaccines to patients through injection by using a needle and syringe. In recent years, new ways to deliver vaccines have been developed. These include using nasal spray devices to deliver vaccines for influenza and similar respiratory diseases.

 

Research highlight 1: Universal influenza antibody - a key ingredient for developing and testing vaccines

Influenza is a common respiratory infection caused by certain strains of influenza viruses. Vaccines are generated to help prevent influenza infection. Since there are many different influenza viruses and since they quickly change and evolve, new vaccines must always be generated to protect against different types and strains of influenza. For example, to prevent the common seasonal flu, vaccines for specific strains of influenza A and B viruses are developed each year. Developing high quality vaccines can take at least three to four months, as it is challenging to generate the necessary reagents and testing methods to assess the vaccine. Nonetheless, for the seasonal influenza, vaccines can be planned a few months in advance. Responding to an unexpected influenza pandemic is much more challenging, as a pandemic outbreak can develop quickly.

In our laboratory, we address these challenges by using our expertise to investigate influenza viruses and identify alternative ways to develop and test vaccines. Our group has identified a part of the influenza virus that is unchanged for all influenza strains. This means that every influenza virus contains a part that does not change between different strains or over time. By studying this highly conserved region, we developed antibodies directed against it and developed so-called "universal" reagents for testing influenza virus strains and vaccines. Our findings represent a significant advance in preparing for an influenza pandemic.

We are working to:

  • Improve quality testing of influenza virus strains and vaccines;
  • Apply our research to developing universal assays for influenza vaccines;
  • Contribute key findings to prepare for an influenza pandemic.

 

Research highlight 2: Live viral vaccines - weakened viruses as effective vaccines

There are many different ways to produce vaccines. Some viral vaccines may contain killed or inactivated whole viruses, while others contain only parts of the virus.  Still other viral vaccines consist of live "attenuated" or weakened forms of the virus. For some infectious diseases, such as polio, live attenuated viruses make very good vaccines because they induce a robust and protective immune response. Yet another type of vaccine takes advantage of a second live virus, such as adenovirus which is known to be safe for humans, to deliver the active vaccine component. In our laboratory, we investigate these live viral vaccines, their effect on the immune system, and the use of adenovirus to deliver them for effective vaccination.

We are working to:

  • Provide greater understanding of live and attenuated viral vaccines;
  • Contribute information to enhance scientific evaluation of the safety and efficacy of vaccines delivered by live attenuated viruses.

For information about the lead scientist of this laboratory, please visit their  Directory of Scientists and Professionals profile.

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