How A Winnipeg Lab Became An Ebola Research Powerhouse

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? 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. 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. But the story doesn’t begin with Feldmann and Kobinger.

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. Lab leaders keenly wanted Heinz Feldmann, a young German researcher who had recently spent time at the CDC. Artsob, who is now retired, recalls. Gary Kobinger has made a major mark with his work with monoclonal antibodies.

He told The Canadian Press he is leaving the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg next year to become director of the Centre for Research in Infectious Diseases at Laval University in Quebec City. The lab flew Feldmann to Winnipeg to meet NML leaders. He liked what he saw, even though the first trip occurred in December.

  • Dakota Street, Suite 6, Winnipeg, Manitoba
  • S Jefferson St, Roanoke, VA 24011
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  • Portage Avenue E
  • Varicella (Chicken Pox)
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  • Fort Street, Suite 100, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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.

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.

A number of other mobile labs are in the Ebola zone helping with the current epidemic.

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. 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. Ebola ‘cocktail’ developed at Canadian and U.S. When Feldmann was lured away to the U.S., Kobinger became his successor. 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. 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. Winnipeg’s success comes down to excellent scientists given free rein to do world class work. But serendipity plays a role in science too. Kobinger admits he occasionally meets people who want to know the secret of the Winnipeg lab’s success.