Dr. Carolina Ikow is one of the many faces of Eastern Ontario’s COVID-19 response. She is leading one of over 50 COVID-19 research projects currently being explored at The Ottawa Hospital. Her focus: using her existing research into cancer-killing viruses to help the global science community close-in on a vaccine for COVID-19.
A virologist by training, Dr. Ilkow, her research partner Dr. John Bell and their team are working to create viruses that have the ability to attack cancer cells while helping the body to fight off cancer through its own immune response. This is pioneering research into what they call cancer-killing viruses.
The project is well on its way; Dr. Ilkow and Dr. Bell have developed multiple viruses that have the ability to replicate inside cancer cells and spread without harming any normal tissue.
“One of the key things we’ve learned is that the best cancer-killing viruses also stimulate the body’s own immune system – in effect, training the immune cells to recognize and help attack the cancer cells. We’ve developed a number of viruses that are very good at this kind of immune stimulation.”
When COVID-19 became a global crisis, the medical community was given an unprecedented challenge to decode it. Dr. Ilkow and Dr. Bell realized that their research could immediately be repurposed to find a COVID-19 vaccine.
“To be honest, it was a small transition,” says Dr. Ilkow. “It was something that we as a team decided to do together. We have the tools, we have the knowledge; we work with cancer-killing viruses that are indeed vaccines. And, at The Ottawa Hospital, we have an amazing manufacturing facility where we make viruses as therapeutics that we use to treat cancer patients. The reality is that cancer patients are one of many high risk groups for COVID-19, so working towards a Canadian vaccine is the best ways that we can continue to serve our cancer patients.”
The facility Dr. Ilkow refers to is The Ottawa Hospital’s Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre. This lab has the capacity to produce large quantities of virus-based vaccines, which it does regularly for clinical trials. It is the only hospital-based lab in Canada with this capacity for mass-production.
The challenge is to see which virus will be the best at helping to prepare the body to recognize and fight off COVID-19. “[It is] a novel virus, so we don’t know which vaccine strategy will work best,” explains Dr. Ilkow, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. “We need to try everything we have.”
Armed with at least four different cancer-fighting viruses that could be genetically engineered to fight COVID-19, the research team applied for one of 23 Fast Grants available in Canada for COVID-19 research. Within a week, they were awarded $250,000 through the Thistledown Foundation, and the money was deposited to them in less than 24 hours.
“That is the first time we’ve experienced something like this.” Dr. Ilkow says of the speed of the grant process. “It was amazing. Having money to be used for this project will absolutely accelerate the process. We are extremely grateful and motivated.”
It’s not just the efficiency in funding that Dr. Ilkow is impressed by. Doctors and scientists around the globe are collaborating with unprecedented proactivity and effectiveness, she explains. Working with other scientists from the University of Calgary and McMaster University, Dr. Ilkow and her team hope to begin testing their vaccines in humans by the end of the year.
“At this moment, time is what the science and medical community needs. We need time to figure this out. The community can help us by staying at home and following social distancing measures. It’s giving us time to do our job. And we are so grateful for that.”
Dr. Ilkow’s work and the work of over 50 research teams at The Ottawa Hospital rely on research, facilities and resources that have been developed over many years, thanks to generous support from donors through The Ottawa Hospital Foundation. On this Giving Tuesday, Faces Magazine will match any donation made to the foundation up to $100,000. You can donate and have your donation matched by us through this link.