June 4, 2020

From cancer to COVID: Med school researchers may hold key to vaccine creation

Doug Mahoney re-focuses experience with viruses on urgent exploration
Doug Mahoney
Doug Mahoney

Dr. Doug Mahoney, PhD, has spent a lifetime working with viruses. Normally, his studies at the Cumming School of Medicine involve the cancer-fighting variety — viruses that can replicate and attack tumour cells while stimulating the body’s own immune system.

His hope now, during the pandemic, is that one of these cancer treatments that has already been developed and safely tested in people can be modified and repurposed as a vaccine for COVID-19.

Creating a viral vectored vaccine in collaboration with investigators Dr. John Bell, PhD, and Dr. Carolina Ilkow, PhD, from The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa has become Mahoney’s focus.

A viral vectored vaccine is different from the most common types of vaccines, which are made from the pathogen itself. Mahoney (pictured above) and his colleagues are using their best candidates of the immune-boosting, cancer-killing variety as a delivery system, and adding the genetic sequencing they know from the COVID-19 strain (SARS-CoV-2). This type of hybrid vaccine creates a memory response from the immune system so it knows to attack when exposed to the novel coronavirus.

This method had great success and led to the only licensed vaccine to protect and treat people with the Ebola virus, helping to put an end to outbreaks in Africa in recent years.

The virus that is used as the delivery system for the Ebola vaccine is the same virus that we work with. It is safe, and has already has been given to more than 200,000 people.

Mahoney’s project could lead to human clinical trial testing in 2021, as the team takes the steps necessary to identify and ensure the safety of their best candidate for a viral vectored vaccine in the early stages of a very complicated process.

Support from our Calgary community

As it has with a number of University of Calgary projects during the COVID-19 pandemic, the philanthropic community is getting behind Mahoney’s work. A recent anonymous gift is helping to fund the development and testing of a vaccine. The charitable investment is one of several sources of funding sustaining the virus study.

Mahoney says it means a great deal being helped by the Calgary community.

“Once again, Calgarians are stepping up to support local research. Their contributions allow our team to move faster, which is critically important for vaccine development during a pandemic.”

Doug Mahoney is an assistant professor in the departments of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases, and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and is a member of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute and Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine.

Community support fuels important research and education priorities within the Cumming School of Medicine, including our response to COVID-19 and the core infrastructure that supports this work. Giving to the CSM Impact Fund can help minimize the consequences of the pandemic in our community and beyond.


UCalgary resources on COVID-19

For the most up-to-date information about the University of Calgary's response to the spread of COVID-19, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Response website.