From vaccine research to developing tests, Manitoba scientists playing important part in COVID-19 fight

They're not necessarily treating sick patients in hospitals, but a number of Manitoba-based scientists are working long hours and facing incredible pressure to battle the novel coronavirus from their labs and research facilities.

'We go to sleep pretty exhausted, but we go to bed satisfied we're doing everything we can': U of M researcher

Xiao-Jian Yao, centre, is researching a COVID-19 vaccine. He's pictured here with current members of his research team at the University of Manitoba. (Submitted by Research Manitoba)

They're not necessarily treating sick patients in hospitals, but a number of Manitoba-based scientists are working long hours and facing remarkable pressure to battle the novel coronavirus from their labs and research facilities.

Xiao-Jian Yao is among them.

The professor in the University of Manitoba's department of medical microbiology was recently awarded nearly $600,000 from the Canadian Institute of Health Research and Research Manitoba to work on developing a vaccine for COVID-19.

"I've been working for more than two months with no weekend.… Sometimes I work in the night," Yao said.

"I want to do something to improve our effort to control this virus."

That federal funding is part of a $1.1-billion strategy for medical research to fight COVID-19 that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in April. The strategy involves research into vaccines, clinical trials and testing.

Yao, who has a background in studying viruses like HIV and H5N1, is studying and developing COVID-19 vaccine candidates, and testing their ability to produce immunity responses in mice. 

From there, he'll work toward testing on humans.

Xiao-Jian Yao is looking at possible COVID-19 vaccines. (NIAID Integrated Research Facility/Reuters)

Yao's background in studying other viruses will help him in the COVID-19 fight, he says.

In previous work, his team developed a platform designed to attack the area where viruses bind to healthy cells, known as the receptor binding domain. Yao says the vaccine he's working on will attack COVID-19 receptor binding domains. 

"It's very important for scientists to contribute our knowledge and our effort to this field," he said.

COVID-19 therapies

One of the other scientists contributing his knowledge to the field is working to help treat the symptoms of the virus that can sometimes be fatal.

Dr. Ryan Zarychanski, a hematologist and critical care physician with Cancer Care Manitoba who also teaches at the University of Manitoba, is leading a clinical trial in Manitoba that recently got a $700,000 funding boost from the province. He hopes to be among the recipients of federal grant money as well.

When the pandemic hit, he and his research team shifted their focus to work on therapies for COVID-19.

Zarychanski is testing several drugs, including hydroxychloroquine — a drug approved by Health Canada to treat malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus — to see if it can prevent contracting COVID-19 after exposure to the virus that causes it, and whether the drug can be used to keep symptoms from worsening for those who have the illness.

Dr. Ryan Zarychanski, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba, is working on a new clinical trial to discover if an existing drug can effectively reduce COVID-19 symptoms. (Submitted by University of Manitoba)

That trial just ended and the results aren't available yet, he says, but he's leading a new one that started Friday, which will take place in eight countries around the world.

"It's a trial of repurposing a blood thinner to reduce clots, inflammation and hopefully reduce the ability of the virus to cause organ damage," he said.

After that, his team will look at using plasma from the blood of people who have recovered from COVID-19 to treat patients who are sick with the virus, to see if the antibodies can prevent serious symptoms or death.

Zarychanski says it's important for him, a Manitoban, to lead trials here in the province because it means Manitoba patients have access to the clinical trials that will hopefully ease their suffering.

"It's overwhelming. I'm proud of the team. I'm privileged we have the opportunity to do this," he said.

"Every day we go to sleep pretty exhausted, but we go to bed satisfied we're doing everything we can."

Tools for quick diagnosis

Governments all over the world are looking into widely testing their populations for COVID-19, and one Manitoba scientist is working to make that testing easier.

Brad Pickering received more than $400,000 from the federal government and Research Manitoba to look into developing portable diagnostics for COVID-19 that can be used anywhere from a care home to an airport to a patient's bedside.

Pickering, who is the head of special pathogens at the National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, is working on developing an easy to use, battery-operated diagnostic tool.

Manitoba's Brad Pickering is working on a portable and rapid COVID-19 test. (Submitted by Canadian Food Inspection Agency)

"I think it gives another option to be able to run a rapid test that's highly sensitive, and I think it's relatively easy to use, so there's not a lot of expertise required," he said.

Pickering hopes access to that kind of testing will help enable Canada to jump-start the economy safely.

"It would help, potentially, businesses stay open or air travel — things like that. I'm hoping that we can get something set up that will be really useful to help people."

'It will take many brains'

Yao, Zarychanski and Pickering aren't the only people researching in these areas, but the head of Research Manitoba says they're making an important contribution in a battle against a virus which has affected nearly every aspect of humanity.

"Not one country, not one scientist, not one group is going to be able to solve all the pieces," said Christina Weise, the president of Research Manitoba, a provincial body that recently contributed more than $5 million to support local researchers.

"It will take many brains in order to solve these issues, but Manitobans are a really, really important part of it."


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