Innovation All-Stars: Dr Frank Plummer


Meet Dr Frank Plummer. He’s a renowned HIV researcher and the former head of the National Microbiology Lab [Laboratory] of Canada. We asked him about his start at the lab, the importance of the facility, and the challenges he faced there.

Dr Plummer:

I became the director of the National Microbiology Lab [Laboratory], which is part of the Public Health Agency of Canada. I left Kenya to move back to Winnipeg, continued the research in Kenya, but I thought I needed a more sophisticated laboratory approach in order to get where I wanted to go rather than working in the field in Kenya.

It was an interesting challenge. The lab, when I took it over, was very new and it had relocated from Ottawa to Winnipeg. Only something like twenty-five people moved from Ottawa to Winnipeg, so the lab was underutilized and underpopulated. I had a big building job to do, which was a unique challenge and a very exciting opportunity.

The lab was responsible for all aspects of public health related to infectious diseases from bacterial and food borne problems, to deadly viruses like Ebola. It has the only Level 4 program in Canada and one of the very few in the world, so we became the focal point for any infectious disease outbreak, especially when the agent is unknown.

The first big thing that we dealt with was SARS in 2003, when this new virus that had never been seen in humans before suddenly appeared first in China, and then by the time we had recognized that there was something of this nature going on in China, it was in Toronto and Vancouver. This severe respiratory illness was undiagnosable using tests that were agents that we knew about, so we pretty quickly knew that this was something totally new and that we had to take a different approach.

The SARS virus was first isolated by the centre for disease control [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] in the U.S., and then we isolated it shortly after that, a day or two later. Then we set off on a race, basically, to sequence this virus, to sequence the whole genome. In collaboration with the University of British Columbia centre for genome sciences [Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre] we were the first — Canada was the first — to sequence this, and it was a very, very exciting time: a very exciting time to discover this virus and figure out what to do about it, and develop new diagnostic tools, and then the science [inaudible] to sequence the virus was also very exciting.

And after that we went through a number of scares related to influenza — which as many people have heard, pandemic influenza is one of the most feared things in infectious diseases. The 1918 flu killed many millions of people around the world. We had a pretty severe test of that in 2009 when this H1N1 influenza virus, which was totally new, emerged first in California and then they had a big outbreak in Mexico City. We helped the Mexicans with their response, but by the time we knew it was in Mexico it was already in Canada — there were cases in Nova Scotia — so it happened just bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.
Basically we were the ones that more or less found the pandemic. It had already been reported in the U.S., but we found it in Mexico, and we found it in Canada — then we knew it was pretty much going to be everywhere.

Preparedness for this kind of thing is extremely important. We need to have the scientific capability to respond to it, to make new diagnostic tests, to test new therapies, to make vaccines — hopefully — and I think Canada is very well prepared. The National Microbiology Lab is one of the best in the world, if not the best in the world.

To illustrate how important the lab is in national and global responses to these kinds of threats, we’ve done three very innovative things, not by me but by others. The first innovation was to develop mobile laboratories — the “lab-in-a-suitcase” — a “lab-in-twelve-suitcases” really — that can take the lab to the patient, rather than take a specimen to a lab somewhere in the United States or Canada. That has been incredibly important in responding to these outbreaks of viral hemorrhagic fever — Ebola and Marburg — because that shortens the time it takes to distinguish who has Ebola, which means then you can take appropriate action to isolate them and treat them, or has something else and would then be separated from those who have Ebola.

The second innovation was the development of a vaccine for Ebola, which I think, and most others think, is the most promising vaccine candidate out there. It was developed using a virus called the vesicular stomatitis virus, which is an infection of cows — it can infect people but doesn’t really cause any problems — and putting the Ebola gene in there so that it fools the body into thinking it’s seen Ebola and it develops the appropriate immune response to that Ebola protein. It protects monkeys from challenge one hundred percent of the time if they are vaccinated before the challenge with Ebola. It can even have an effect post exposure, so if animals get exposed to Ebola, even up to three days later there’s still a very significant effect — so it can be used as a kind of therapy as well.

The third innovation was something called ZMapp, which is a cocktail of three monoclonal antibodies that was put together at the National Microbiology Lab by a very creative scientist called Gary Kobinger. Two of the antibodies that are in this cocktail were produced at the National Microbiology Lab and the other was produced at the U.S. Army institute for infection diseases [United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases] in Washington.

This cocktail is very effective in preventing Ebola infection in animal models, and in treating it in animal models. It has been used a few times in people, most notably during this current Ebola outbreak when an American physician and an American nurse got Ebola as they were looking after patients in Sierra Leone and they received this treatment. From what I have heard and seen it basically saved their lives. So, there’s a big rush on now to produce lots of this ZMapp to respond to the current outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.

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