With the route from farm to fork extending around the world, the University of Saskatchewan’s VIDO examines some of the unwelcome microscopic passengers that can come along for the ride.
By Tim Lougheed
For a sobering look at the safety of our food and water, start with a closer inspection of your next meal.
Each item is directly linked with a number of different plant and animal species, brought to your table through an ever-widening array of suppliers around the world. Even a moderately complex dish like Chicken Kiev can feature ingredients from no fewer than 15 countries. Each jurisdiction could have a different way of growing and marketing food, along with physical environments that could be teeming with viruses and bacteria seldom seen in Canada.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of food it is,” says Andrew Potter, “that’s the reality of the situation.”
As director and CEO of the U of S’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO), Potter leads investigations into the intricate relationship between human and animal health. The implications can be daunting: every year, tens of millions of cases of human illness in North America are linked to pathogens originating in animals, amounting to as much as 80 per cent of all emerging diseases.
And although VIDO was founded in the 1970s primarily as a livestock research facility, more sophisticated technology and increased surveillance has regularly shed new light on issues affecting human health. This capability will expand further in 2010 with the launch of the International Vaccine Centre, or InterVac, creating Canada’s largest set of animal research laboratories rated to Containment Level 3.
VIDO—and soon InterVac—will enable Potter and his colleagues to build on accomplishments like the development of a vaccine to prevent cattle from acquiring E. coli O157:H7, an infamous bacterium that can be fatal if consumed in foods such as beef from infected cattle.
Potter points out, however, that vaccines are just one aspect of protecting our food and water. A multi-faceted strategy includes enhanced detection systems, better drugs for treating affected individuals and improved management regimes for farmers.
An example of this approach can be found in the work of VIDO scientist Yan Zhou, who leads the organization’s work on influenza. Each year, farmed chickens and ducks incubate a different version of that virus, which eventually finds its way into humans during the annual flu season.
Zhou is studying a protein found in the body’s cells, which enables the virus to use those cells to reproduce itself. By interfering with the action of that protein, she suggests, the flu becomes much less of a threat.
“If we can cripple the virus—make it less harmful—then it may be a candidate for a live vaccine,” says Zhou, adding that successfully neutralizing the flu virus could also point the way to drugs for treating those who have already caught it.
Zhou is therefore looking forward to working in InterVac where she will be able to handle some of the most threatening strains of influenza, such as the H5N1 version now found in many poultry and bird populations around the world.
Researchers dealing with the H5N1 virus must observe Containment Level 3 protocols (see sidebar), which are intended to prevent the spread of highly pathogenic agents through the air.
Zhou currently conducts this work in collaboration with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Winnipeg which meets Level 3 standards. InterVac will not only exceed these same biosafety requirements, but will make it possible for Zhou to integrate her virus work more completely with other activities of her lab on campus. The modular design will also make it possible for her to expand her activities or even integrate them with the work of others on campus.
To Potter, the InterVac facility is essential for this country to maintain a respected international calibre of activity in the field of infectious disease.
“We’d just like to see some of that knowledge, some of that technology, stay in Canada,” he says.
Construction began last summer on the U of S International Vaccine Centre, or InterVac, a $140-million project to be completed by 2010.
Funded by the federal, provincial and local municipal governments, as well as the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the university, InterVac will be Canada’s largest vaccine research centre and a key part of a national strategy to deal with existing and emerging infectious diseases in both humans and animals.
“InterVac will be one of only a few Level 3 labs in the world that can handle livestock,” VIDO/InterVac director Andrew Potter explains. “Researchers will develop new vaccines and new methods of delivering vaccines against diseases that may include tuberculosis, hepatitis C, SARS, HIV, and avian influenza.”
With 18 state-of-the-art laboratories, InterVac has the potential to expand U of S research by orders of magnitude, enhancing the reputation of the U of S life sciences cluster and increasing learning opportunities for students.
“InterVac will provide rare training opportunities for students in areas such as veterinary medicine, medicine, engineering, toxicology, and vaccinology,” he says.
Already two new related graduate programs— one in public health and the other in vaccinology and immunotherapeutics—have been approved.
With both InterVac and the Canadian Light Source, the U of S will be home to two of the largest science projects in Canada.
To follow InterVac construction progress, view the
project site webcam:
Accidental contamination with potent viral or bacterial agents has traditionally been an occupational hazard for microbiological researchers. Without appropriate precautions, experiments can be spoiled and people’s health threatened.
The Public Health Agency of Canada specifies four levels of precautionary conditions, from minimal to maximum containment of a pathogen.
At the lower end of this spectrum is Containment Level 1, which is regarded as suitable for working with well-known agents that do not necessarily cause disease in humans, and therefore pose little threat to laboratory personnel or the surrounding environment.
In contrast, Containment Levels 3 and 4 set standards to manage agents posing just such threats, especially those transmitted in the air. Only the most experienced and highly trained individuals can work in such facilities, which incorporate features such as negative airflow to keep the atmosphere inside. Only the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg offers Level 4.
Although many Canadian laboratories are rated to Level 3, InterVac will offer U of S researchers access to one of the world’s few Level 3 containment facilities for large animals such as cows.