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University of Alberta’s GSK Chair in Virology gets major funding boost

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The GSK Chair in Virology at the University of Alberta is getting a $1.5-million boost from the biopharma company GSK, bringing the total value to almost $6 million and ensuring future excellence in virology research.

The endowment will ensure the recruitment of high-quality scientists to future leadership roles within the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, whose membership includes some of Canada’s top virologists and immunologists who were at the forefront of the hunt for treatments and vaccines against COVID-19.

“GSK believes that it is in our collective best interest to ensure that centres and thought leaders are supported — to maintain and drive excellence in research, to link innovation to the patient’s eventual access, and to attract and retain top talent,” says Marni Freeman, vice-president and medical director of GSK Canada. “With today’s announcement we are reaffirming our strong support for the University of Alberta, the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology and Dr. Tyrrell as they take important steps to expand the GSK Chair in Virology propelling leading discoveries into life-changing solutions.”

The GSK Chair in Virology was established in 1996 with an initial investment of $1.75 million, coupled with a contribution of $1.25 million from the Government of Alberta. GSK committed a further $5 million in 2009 to purchase and maintain core laboratory facilities and equipment in the newly established institute. These facilities to handle highly infectious pathogens proved to be invaluable to U of A’s anti-COVID researchers as the pandemic struck.

The GSK investments were key to the 2010 establishment of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology and the recruitment of Michael Houghton as Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology, according to D. Lorne Tyrrell, founding director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology and holder of the GSK chair since its inception. Houghton was later awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with two other scientists for their discovery of the hepatitis C virus.

“Now COVID has changed the world,” says Tyrrell, who was appointed to Canada’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force during the pandemic. “The fact that the university had recruited a number of very good scientists has made for a lot of strengths for the U of A.”

GSK was one of the first pharmaceutical companies to support university medical research in Canada when it backed Tyrrell and Morris Robins in 1987 to develop antivirals for hepatitis B, the most common liver disease in the world — work that eventually led to the licensing of the first oral antiviral drug to treat chronic hepatitis B infection, lamivudine, in 1998. At the time hepatitis B was the world’s ninth leading killer, with nearly a million deaths per year from liver cancer and cirrhosis.

“We could not have done that without the funding that came from GSK,” Tyrrell explains. “Industry funding allows us to take substances that are discovered at universities to a product that can be sold in a pharmacy for patients to access.”

That drive toward discovering and commercializing critical drugs to benefit patients will continue thanks to efforts by the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute, under the direction of Houghton. The Alberta government has committed $50 million over 10 years to support translational and commercialization activities by the Applied Virology Institute, and has also recently awarded a $55.1-million grant to establish an Alberta Research Consortium in Pandemic Preparedness, which is co-led by Matthias Götte, chair of the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, and Tyrrell. The Containment Level 3 laboratories were recently upgraded thanks to a federal grant to David Evans and Tom Hobman.

“Long-term and beneficial relationships with industry partners such as GSK are critically important to building the infrastructure and the people that we need in an expanding biotech industry to create jobs and keep attracting top-notch people,” Tyrrell says.

“GSK has been a tremendous long-standing partner of the U of A, and the investments are having a very positive effect on health, jobs, and employment.”