Research at U of S
Building a Canadian Bastion Against Infectious Disease
By Michael Robin
Lorne Babiuk, one of Canada's most prominent immunologists, is a consummate team builder, research collaborator, and master negotiator. In his 10 years as director of VIDO, the organization has grown tremendously, most recently with a $19 million, 50,000 square foot expansion completed in 2003.
Half a dozen new vaccines for food animals were developed at VIDO while it was the Veterinary Infectious Disease Organization. The name change came in 2003 to reflect a broader mandate-one with an expanded focus on infectious diseases of humans. This concerted push into human health has researchers turning their attention to threats like SARS, hepatitis C, and E. coli O157:H7, the bacterium that contaminated water supplies in Walkerton, Ontario, sickening and killing residents.
"Vaccination has saved more lives than all other methods of controlling infectious diseases combined," Babiuk says.
A self-described "big picture" thinker, Babiuk is the main champion of an ambitious initiative to build a $61.8-million International Vaccine Centre (INTERVAC) at the U of S to allow Canadian researchers to battle emerging, high-profile threats like BSE, West Nile virus, and even HIV/AIDS. INTERVAC received approval for $19 million in March 2004 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). Funding from other partners is now being assembled.
"He's had success after success in funding because he's very good at seeing what is needed and bringing it together," says Warren Steck, a prominent Saskatchewan scientist-turned-consultant who worked on the INTERVAC proposal.
Babiuk sits on the CFI board as well as other agencies like Genome Canada that not only fund research, but direct its future. In 2001, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) needed someone to chair the scientific advisory board of their Institute of Infection and Immunity. One name rose quickly to the top: Lorne Babiuk.
"He is one of Canada's most prominent and highly cited scientists in this area," says Bhagirath Singh, scientific director of the Institute. "That in itself speaks volumes of his talent and collaborative abilities. We are delighted to have him to allow us to frame what Canada should be doing in infection and immunity research."
Singh, a longtime friend, colleague, and collaborator, says Babiuk is a highly regarded scientist and speaker, able to lead tough negotiations and provide a very focused approach to scientific research.
"He brings all of these things together in a single individual, which is really remarkable," he says.
Despite the accolades, Babiuk jokes that he is a "slow learner," still on his way back to Vancouver where he met his wife Betty Lou and finished his PhD over 30 years ago.
He had just finished a post-doctoral fellowship at Toronto General Hospital through the University of Toronto. Not wanting to head back to Vancouver so soon after finishing his doctorate, he took a job at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) at the University of Saskatchewan, his alma mater from his undergraduate and masters degree days.
"I was interested in the disease process or pathogenesis. The vet school obviously provided a fantastic opportunity to look at animal models," he says. "But it was my full intention to move to Vancouver a few years after that."
Today, Babiuk's office at VIDO is a study in barely contained chaos. Papers, books and magazines cover virtually every horizontal surface, testament to both a staggering workload and a remarkable capacity for multitasking. At any given time, Babiuk may be vigorously lobbying governments for funding, working on a proposal for a new multi-million dollar research institute, furthering his own research program, or mentoring one or more of his graduate students.
On the walls are a saw blade decorated in tole painting style by his wife and a couple of illustrations by his daughter Kimberly, a fine arts teacher at Saskatoon's Walter Murray high school. His son, Shawn, has followed his father's lead and joined VIDO after earning a PhD at the U of S.
Babiuk grew up on a farm near Sturgis, about an hour north of Yorkton, one of Paul and Mary Babiuk's two children. While he and his sister Juliana had a lot of hands-on work on the family's mixed farm, Lorne had another ambition: medicine.
Artist rendering of the INTERVAC building.
Seven years of medical school seemed daunting to a young man fresh off the farm, but a four-year degree in Agriculture seemed manageable.
An aunt and uncle in Saskatoon provided a place to live for the first year, and a Saskatchewan government entrance scholarship-the first of several for academic prowess-covered living expenses and tuition. Summer jobs filled in the gaps. In fact, it was one of these jobs that would launch his distinguished career in research.
Don Rennie, then head of the U of S Department of Soil Science, recruited Babiuk to help run a study on crop response to fertilizer in the province's different soil zones.
Babiuk built skill, knowledge, and confidence in soil science while completing a masters degree in microbiology. But the idea of a career in medicine kept tugging at him, even as he left for the University of British Columbia to pursue a doctorate in virology.
"I was very interested in research, and virology got me closer to the medical area I was interested in," he says. "Not because medicine seemed to have a glory about it, but because I always had an interest in doing something practical or of value. And to me, medicine had some value to it."
But he realized his true passion lay in research rather than practice. After landing back in Saskatchewan with the WCVM job, Babiuk moved to VIDO. As the organization's research director, he began building a team with two guiding principles: the new hire had to know something he did not, and the new person had to be a team player.
Andy Potter, VIDO's Director of Research and Chief Science Officer, says, "His position is that he already knows everything Lorne Babiuk knows. He wants to find someone else. He also doesn't want to become what somebody else is. He would rather collaborate than compete."
Potter was one of the first members of Babiuk's team, recruited 20 years ago from his position as a research scientist with Health Canada in Ottawa.
"I initially turned him down, but he just kept at it," Potter says. "He is very persistent, and he does it in a non-confrontational, non-belligerent sort of way."
In his 10 years as director of VIDO, this persistence has become the cornerstone for an organization with a reputation for excellence in North America. Although its research culture is one that emphasizes group achievement over personal reputation building, Babiuk says there is room for both.
For example, while post-docs at VIDO are told they can expect to be the primary author on three scientific papers during their stay, they are also expected to work with their colleagues to be a secondary author on three more.
Collaboration allows resources to be shared, from grants to personnel to equipment. Diverse expertise can be brought to bear on a problem, outside ideas can be introduced, and established dogma can be challenged. But according to Babiuk, this model is rare on a university campus.
"No one person, no matter how brilliant they are, can monopolize all the ideas," he says. "The more interactions and networking you have, the better your opportunities are to vet your ideas, to get new ideas, to have people shoot down your ideas. And as a result of that-you shouldn't look at it as a negative-you come up with better ideas. That, I think is what's lacking in a university environment."
Babiuk's viewpoint may be broader than most. At first glance, VIDO would seem to be a biology-focused institute, but one of the first people hired was a chemist. Now Babiuk wants to bring sociologists into a new vaccinology training program.
"Why sociology? There are tremendous social implications of what we do. So we'd better have our students understand the implications of what they're doing," he says.
"An example is vaccination. There's a huge anti-vaccine lobby around the world. I mean 'do vaccines cause autism?'-the answer is 'no,' but it doesn't stop people from believing it."
Likewise, Babiuk sees applications for the specialized knowledge of engineers to develop things like new vaccine delivery systems, as well as the expertise of economists and lawyers in managing intellectual property.
VIDO, for example, holds more than 60 patents-a community resource to fuel the enterprise and its future (there is an Incentive Fund for VIDO researchers as well). The organization depends almost entirely on non-university, non-government sources of funding, with the notable exception of a $9-million operating fund infusion from the Saskatchewan government in August 2004.
Managing this uncertainty is one of Babiuk's biggest headaches and perhaps one of his greatest achievements. The foremost challenge is maintaining core funding-the pool required to cover, among other things, the payroll of the 135 or so research and support staff at VIDO. These expenses aren't covered by research grants but are nonetheless essential to stay in business.
"He has been remarkably successful in putting together a patchwork of funding to do this," Potter says. "But the challenge of obtaining core funding has occupied him for the better part of 10 years."
Babiuk approaches the problem the same way he would an obstacle in his research program: identify the available resources, find allies, stay focused on the goal. Potter says this includes forging links with the local media and the business community, both of which see the value of a major research institute in the city, and lobby on VIDO's behalf.
"There are not many scientists that can do this on a political level," he says. "Lorne is very adept at it."
At the same time, Babiuk built and maintains his stature in the research community. He holds a Doctor of Science from the U of S. The designation is reserved for scientists whose body of published work is deemed worthy by an international panel of experts of a degree beyond a PhD. He also holds a Canada Research Chair in Vaccinology and Biotechnology. His knowledge has made him a much sought after speaker, and his counsel is sought on both the national and international stage.
While Babiuk concedes it is unusual for a researcher to get major infrastructure built on campus, he considers it a secondary accomplishment to training minds. Potter, whose office is next door, says the director is an excellent mentor.
"Lorne is a busy guy, but he always has time for students and post docs," he says. "He will drop anything to sit down and talk with them for 15 minutes or two hours-whatever it takes. There are a lot of 'Babiuk grads' out there that occupy senior levels in academia, government and industry. These are very good and powerful people, and you will find them around the globe."
For Babiuk, this achievement gives him the most satisfaction.
"To me, it's about creating an environment for people to flourish, creating an environment for teamwork, for people to achieve more than they could have alone."