How a Winnipeg lab became an Ebola research powerhouse

ZMapp, a concoction of three Ebola antibodies, was created in Winnipeg — half a world away from the West African countries where Ebola has left thousands of people dead.

National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg behind innovative, experimental ZMapp Ebola drug

Researchers with the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg say they are optimistic that a tool to combat the Ebola virus may be on the horizon. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Winnipeg is half a world away from the countries in Africa where Ebola, and its viral cousin, Marburg, occasionally slip out of their animal reservoir to start infecting and killing people, as Ebola is now doing in West Africa.

The current outbreak has infected at least 5,335 people and killed at least 2,622. To date, there has never been a case of either viral hemorrhagic fever infections within Canadian borders.

So why then is Canada's national lab an Ebola research powerhouse? Why is a facility on the edge of the Prairies, near North America's longitudinal centre, the site from whence some of the most promising Ebola research emanates?

What research? Well, there's ZMapp, the most promising of the current experimental treatments. There's also an Ebola vaccine that may be useful both to prevent infection and stop it in its tracks, if given shortly after exposure. And a mobile diagnostic lab that has changed the way outbreak testing is done.

These are enormous contributions to the scientific efforts to prevent or contain Ebola. And the fact that they come from Winnipeg seems to come down to a few good men.

2 key players

If you ask why Winnipeg  is such a player in Ebola research, the instant answer comes in the form of two names — Heinz Feldmann, the lab's first special pathogens chief and Gary Kobinger, his successor and the current branch chief.

"Both of these guys are absolutely world class. I can't say enough good things about them. They are both superb scientists and in addition to being superb scientists they are great individuals," said Jim LeDuc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch, which also employs key Ebola researchers.

Dr. Francis Plummer ended his 14-year tenure as head of the National Microbiology Laboratory in March. (Canadian Press)

"They have the right attitude. They're collaborative, they're co-operative, they share their information readily and they have a global perspective. And they know exactly what needs to be done. And they're incredibly well respected within the scientific community."

But the story doesn't begin with Feldmann and Kobinger.

When the federal government decided to build in Winnipeg a new, state-of-the-art laboratory to replace aging Health Canada facilities in Ottawa, it was not immediately clear the complex would contain a Level 4 lab, the high containment space needed to work on the world's most dangerous pathogens.

The Ottawa facility had not had one, meaning that any time Canada had to test a specimen that might contain a Level 4 bug, it was forced to ship the sample to the labs of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga.

Dr. Joseph Losos, then director general of Health Canada's Laboratory Centre for Disease Control, gave the go-ahead. The search began for someone to head the special pathogens team.

'It's bitterly cold out there'

Lab leaders keenly wanted Heinz Feldmann, a young German researcher who had recently spent time at the CDC.

"We knew we wanted Heinz. We thought he was a good fit for the lab, which he absolutely was," Artsob, who is now retired, recalls.

Gary Kobinger has made a major mark with his work with monoclonal antibodies. (CBC)

The lab flew Feldmann to Winnipeg to meet NML leaders. He liked what he saw, even though the first trip occurred in December.

"When I came home I told my wife... 'It's bitterly cold out there.' But she said 'That's fine,' and that's how I got to Winnipeg," Feldmann says.

He liked the idea of starting his own lab, building up his own program, rather than taking over an existing one. As well, he'd been impressed by how supportive the environment appeared to be. And he was drawn to the mandate: Do science, but also do public health.

"I had the feeling that the leadership would be basically willing to put it in the people's hands, in our hands, to build this program up under the condition that we have to fulfill the public health portion of it," said Feldmann, who left Winnipeg in 2008 to become chief scientist for Level 4 laboratories at the U.S. National Institute of Health's Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont.

Under Feldmann, the Winnipeg lab created Ebola and Marburg vaccines that are widely thought to be highly promising. Between 800 and 1,000 vials of the Ebola vaccine, called VSV-EBOV, have been donated to the World Health Organization and will be used in this outbreak, if preliminary trials show it is safe in humans.

The team also created a mobile laboratory, a low-tech but safe lab-in-a-suitcase that has revolutionized how testing is done in the remote locations where Ebola and Marburg outbreaks typically occur.

"Once they [WHO] deployed us the first time I think they realized that the on site thing was giving some advantage," Feldmann said.

The Winnipeg mobile lab has been deployed by the WHO during most subsequent Ebola and Marburg outbreaks. And many other countries have copied the model. A number of other mobile labs are in the Ebola zone helping with the current epidemic.

'Set your people free'

Also instrumental in Winnipeg's success was Plummer, a seasoned HIV scientist with years in the field who returned to Canada to take over as head of the new lab in 2001.

"I think that Frank's motto is: Set your people free. And I think basically he created the environment here," said Kobinger, the rising star in Ebola research.

Another thing about Plummer: He was always keen to bring top Canadian scientists home.

Gary Kobinger — born in Europe but raised in Quebec — was working on an Ebola vaccine at the University of Pennsylvania. He approached Feldmann about collaborating, and ended up splitting his time between Philadelphia and the Level 4 labs of Winnipeg.

"Heinz basically introduced Gary to me saying 'He's a really good guy, it would be great if we could find a job for him," Plummer says. "So I hired him and it was one of the smartest things I ever did."

When Feldmann was lured away to the U.S., Kobinger became his successor.

"I think with Gary they found the perfect person to run that project," Feldmann says.

Antibody cocktail

Kobinger has continued work on the Ebola vaccine. But it is with something known as monoclonal antibodies where he's made a major mark.

Our immune systems produce a soup of antibodies to protect against various invaders. But scientists try to figure out which specific ones target a given pathogen, then grow up lots of that individual antibody. Those are called monoclonals.

Kobinger and his team produced a cocktail of three Ebola monoclonals that looked promising against the virus in animal testing. Scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., were also working on a monoclonal cocktail of three antibodies. There was no overlap between the two.

Kobinger decided to try to optimize the cocktails, testing various combinations to see which was best. The result: ZMapp, which is made up of two of Winnipeg's monoclonals and one made by the U.S. team. A recently published study showed the antibody cocktail protected 100 per cent of Ebola-infected primates, even when treatment was only begun five days after infection.

Plummer couldn't be prouder. "People had been trying [to make Ebola monoclonals] for years and couldn't. And we had people who were very good at making monoclonals."

'Canada became a player'

Winnipeg's success comes down to excellent scientists given free rein to do world class work. But serendipity plays a role in science too.

"Out of small things and maybe being lucky — I'm sure being lucky — and maybe certain people making the right decisions, Canada became a player in the game. And I think that was the concept," Feldmann said.

Kobinger admits he occasionally meets people who want to know the secret of the Winnipeg lab's success.

"They're trying to understand if it's because we have more resources. I guarantee you, no," he says with a chuckle. "In relation to many labs in the U.S., definitely we have less."

It comes down to people, an institutional philosophy and support.

Plummer sums it up. "My strategy, and I think it still is the department's strategy, is to keep the scientific opportunity as rich as possible."