You probably don’t think of ducks when you think of the flu virus, but Dr Kathy Magor does. She studies the evolution of the immune response to pathogens; ducks interest her because they can catch the flu virus, but cannot rid it from their bodies (although it does not make them sick). A similar process occurs with a hepatitis B virus, which ducks carry and is closely related to the virus that infects humans.
By understanding why the duck cannot get rid of influenza or hepatitis viruses, Magor hopes to identify the ways in which these viruses elude our immune defences. “Determining which genes are being switched off could lead to a new approach to fighting the flu and treating hepatitis,” she explains. “This is an example of how broadening our fundamental understanding of immunology may result in practical applications.”
In 1986, D. Lorne Tyrrell began working with Dr Morris Robins on a system to identify potent antivirals against hepatitis B virus (HBV) which infects about 400 million people worldwide. Through their work they discovered several potent antivirals against HBV and this resulted in a major collaboration with Glaxo Canada (now GlaxoSmithKline).
The collaboration led to the discovery that lamivudine had potent antiviral activity for HBV and today lamivudine is licensed worldwide as the first oral antiviral for the treatment of HBV infections. Lamivudine has been shown to decrease the development of cirrhosis or liver cancer in chronic HBV carriers. This work also reopened the option for resuming liver transplantation in patients with end-stage liver disease from HBV.
Bacterial, viral, and other parasitic diseases cause enormous suffering and millions of deaths annually and have huge economic costs. Understanding natural immune responses and developing vaccine-induced immune responses to these and other diseases is critically important to health.
The University of Alberta has a large number of excellent immunologists affiliated with various departments across the University of Alberta campus. In 1996, the Immunology Network (ImmuNet) was formed as an affinity group within the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry. Formed to establish a focus and provide profile for immunology research interests at the University of Alberta, its primary goal is to coordinate and promote immunology research and education. A core group of scientists within ImmuNet is exploring the workings of the immune system, its activation and its defenses and is working to develop new vaccines and drugs for the treatment of specific infections.
The research areas in immunity include allergic asthma, immune system responses to viruses, the origin of a form of leukemia, immune system defenses to infection, and transplantation antigens. Research on a particular form of leukemia has influenced clinical approaches to the disease.
Areas of research on infection include the regulation of maternal immunity, viral infections, antibiotic resistance, and viral hepatitis. Researchers in viral hepatitis have made major contributions to the study and treatment of this condition, including development of a new antiviral therapy for hepatitis B.
The group has published papers in peer-reviewed publications, and their work has received international recognition. The researchers collaborate extensively with biotechnical and multinational pharmaceutical companies and hold several patents.