Virology Laboratory

Virology and vaccine research

Immunization and vaccines have contributed greatly to preventing diseases and improving health. Each year, new vaccines are developed to help protect against certain diseases. At the Centre for Biologics Evaluation, scientists have developed expertise in various new scientific techniques that help provide new tools for evaluating vaccines.

Why we study viruses and vaccines

We are exposed to viruses every day. Some are harmful to humans and some are not. To identify which viruses have the potential to cause diseases and how to prevent them from causing harm to people, scientists at the Centre for Biologics Evaluation examine information from different fields:

  • Trends from population statistics and computer analyses, as well as detailed cellular and molecular data.
  • Recent advances in technology provide valuable new approaches and tools for investigating how viruses change and evolve.
  • Identification of the mode of action and properties of viruses, so that scientists can design strategies to prevent them from causing disease.

Vaccines are developed to help the body protect itself from viruses. By understanding what viruses do to the body and how vaccines work, we can obtain valuable information on improving, developing and evaluating vaccines.

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How we study viruses and vaccines

At the Centre for Biologics Evaluation, scientists investigate a wide range of health questions relating to viruses, vaccines and immune responses against viruses. For instance, in collaboration with other scientists, they have identified key parts of the influenza virus and developed reagents that help Health Canada quickly and effectively test new influenza vaccines.

The scientists use techniques from fields such as molecular and cell biology, as well as biochemistry and bioinformatics. The team conducts scientific research in various areas and analyses include the molecular structure and genetic profile of viruses and vaccines. They also develop methods to detect pathogens that cause disease and investigate immune responses against these pathogens.

Some highlights of the research in this area include:

  • Investigating the molecular structure of viruses and the mechanisms underlying viral diseases to provide insights into new ways to prevent and treat infectious diseases
  • Developing innovative methods for evaluating the vaccines that Health Canada and other governments regulate for safety and efficacy

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Concepts and tools we use to study viruses and vaccines

Virology is the study of viruses and viral diseases. In this broad field, the Centre for Biologics Evaluation works to characterize the growth, culture and structure of viruses. The centre's scientists perform research to answer questions such as

  • How do viruses interact with, and infect, organisms?
  • How do genetic changes in viruses impact the ability of a virus to cause a disease?
  • How do viruses evolve?
  • Can viruses be used for therapeutic applications?

Viruses are tiny infectious agents that need a living host cell in order to be active and replicate. They can vary greatly in shape, but are typically composed of genetic material in the form of DNA or RNA. This genetic material is protected by a protein coat and, in some cases, a protective fatty envelope. The study of viruses and virus-like agents can be challenging as it applies knowledge and techniques from various fields such as genetics, cell and molecular biology, immunology, pathology, genomics and proteomics.

Scientists use bioinformatics to examine molecular or population data. This is considered to be a powerful approach for examining the complex issues of virology. With bioinformatics, they can screen and study large sets of data to analyse the composition and structure of viruses, proteins, DNA and RNA.

Sorting through these complex data helps scientists understand how viruses function, evolve and change. Scientists learn how the viruses interact with other organisms, and they study patterns to see relationships between structure and function.

Research from molecular biology, bioinformatics, biochemistry and other fields generate valuable information for developing methods for diagnosing, treating and preventing viral diseases, as well as potential therapeutic applications of viruses. For example, by looking at the structure and function of components of viruses, scientists can identify sites that may represent the basis for potential vaccines and functions that may respond to anti-viral treatments.

At the Centre for Biologics Evaluation, scientists carry out research on various types of vaccines and find new tools to analyse them. Vaccines are designed to contain antigenic components that help the immune system identify later infection by those same bacteria and viruses, so that the body can fight them off more effectively.

In the case of viruses, vaccines contain structural components of the virus that stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies that recognize them. Then, if a person is later exposed to this virus, the antibodies are ready to help the immune system rapidly destroy and eliminate the virus.

Vaccines can be administered using different delivery methods. For example, health professionals can deliver vaccines to patients through injection by using a needle and syringe. In recent years, new ways to deliver vaccines have been developed. These include using nasal spray devices to deliver vaccines for influenza and similar respiratory diseases.

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Research highlight 1: Influenza virus - How do biological properties of the virus strain affect the vaccine

Influenza is a respiratory infection that causes significant morbidity on a seasonal cycle in the northern hemisphere. Changes to the circulating strain happen frequently such that a virus that infects one year may be significantly different from the common circulating influenza strain the following year. These changes in vaccine strain can cause changes to the physical properties of the vaccine such as stability or sensitivity to thermal and chemical changes.

  • In our laboratory, we have addressed these challenges by measuring different biological properties of specific influenza proteins and showing how these amino acid changes can result in changes to the physical properties of the vaccine. Further we have demonstrated that when we alter these properties in the virus we can introduce changes to a vaccine derived from an identical strain. Currently we are examining how changes in the processing of influenza viruses can cause differences between vaccines even when produced from identical influenza strains.

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Research highlight 2: Respiratory Syncytial Virus –Virus proteins involved in development and immune response

Human respiratory syncytial virus (HRSV) causes widespread respiratory infections in human populations. Although it can often be mistaken for the common cold in healthy adults, the virus is a leading cause of pneumonia in young children and can be a significant cause of mortality in the elderly and immunosuppressed. There is currently no approved vaccine for HRSV that is both effective and safe.

  • We are currently examining both how different domains or two virus proteins contribute to protein recruitment and virus morphogenesis as well as contribute to the body’s immune reaction when presented to an immune response.

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For information about the lead scientist of this laboratory, please visit their Directory of Scientists and Professionals profile.