Old Friends, New Foes

Miguel E. Quiñones- Mateu (left), Eric Arts, and Richard Gibson are building a world-leading viral vaccine bank in the battle against infectious diseases Miguel E. Quiñones-Mateu (left), Eric Arts, and Richard Gibson are building a world-leading viral vaccine bank in the battle against infectious diseases.

About 20 years ago, they scratched out ideas for a viral vaccine seed bank on a paper napkin. Now, a trio of old friends is finally making it happen, positioning Schulich Medicine & Dentistry as a world leader in the fight against emerging infectious diseases.

Nestled within the order of his neatly arranged office, Miguel E. Quiñones-Mateu, PhD, recalled the chaos of the Orinoco gold mines in Venezuela some 30 years ago.

Fresh out of university with a degree in science, the future virologist ventured into the dense rainforests of the “Kilometro Ochenta y Dos,” near Brazil’s border, where he tried his luck at gold trading – and succeeded. He used his profits to fix his first car and never returned to the mines.

“It was fun while it lasted, but I really wanted to do something with my undergraduate degree,” said Quiñones-Mateu.

That year, after the brief Amazonian escapade, Quiñones-Mateu met his first success in virology while working as a scientist at the Instituto Nacional de Higiene “Rafael Rangel” in Caracas, Venezuela. He was part of a team of researchers at the institute who were responsible for the first isolation of the Venezuela strain of HIV-1.

Quiñones-Mateu later took a few samples of those early HIV-1 isolates with him to Spain – sealed in vials on dry ice inside an airplane cabin – as the subject of his doctoral research at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.

“The first HIV-1 molecular epidemiology data from my country resulted from me sequencing the genome of these viruses back in 1995,” said Quiñones-Mateu, who is Western Research Chair in Viral Pathogenesis and professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

Decades later, the lessons learned at the mines, the insights gleaned from those early HIV-1 isolates, and the friends and colleagues made along the way serve him well as he prepares for the fight of his life.

Protecting against the inevitable

Quiñones-Mateu’s expertise lies in virus evolution and pathogenesis – essentially, extracting valuable details about viral behaviour from a chaotic mass and using that knowledge to develop antiviral strategies – like finding gold in grit.

This expertise has forged his reputation as one of the world’s leading virologists.

“The process of isolating a virus, especially a novel one, is like discovering something precious. Once you have the isolated virus, you can analyze it, comprehend its structure and behaviour and use this knowledge to develop diagnostics, vaccines and treatments,” said Quiñones-Mateu.

Over 25 years, he has harnessed his skills and knowledge in the battle against HIV and other deadly viruses, including SARS-CoV-2.

As the world rebounds from COVID-19 and braces for the next inevitable virus outbreak–which Quiñones-Mateu warns could arrive before this decade’s end – the Venezuelan virologist is at the forefront of the world’s pandemic preparedness efforts.

Quiñones-Mateu leads Western’s participation in the federally funded Canadian Hub for Health Intelligence and Innovation in Infectious Diseases (HI3). This is a new coalition of universities, hospitals, and industry partners formed to fight existing and emerging infectious diseases.

“The cause of the next pandemic will most likely be a respiratory virus. Since the 2003 SARS outbreak, a new coronavirus seems to jump from animals to humans roughly every decade. The next one could be sooner,” he said.

To prepare for battle with these emerging new foes, Quiñones-Mateu is establishing a viral vaccine seed bank at Western that would develop and house ready-to-use vaccines against future viruses.

It’s an idea that’s been 20 years in the making, and he’s doing it with a “dream team” that includes long-time colleagues and friends Eric J. Arts, BSc’90, PhD, and Richard Gibson.

They have come together across countries and continents to make it happen.

Building the right team

A viral vaccine seed bank of this scale requires a visionary to put all the pieces together – from funding to personnel – and Arts is a master problem solver.

Arts, one of the world’s leading HIV researchers, believes there is only one way to do science right: In a team.

“Lone scientists can’t match the impact of a team,” said Arts, who is professor and Canada Research Chair in HIV Pathogenesis and Viral Control at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

Arts came to Western in 2014 with a vision for a multi-disciplinary Pathogen Research Centre that would bolster the University’s existing infectious diseases program, enhance its capacity to conduct cutting-edge research on human pathogens, and build strong industry partnerships to bring research to market.

Today, that vision is becoming a reality – partly because of a funding boon, but also because of the right mix of talent on his team.

Last year, Arts, who is Executive Director of the School’s level 2 and 3 biocontainment laboratory, Imaging Pathogens for Knowledge Translation (ImPaKT), secured $16 million in federal funding to expand the facility to house a vaccine seed bank, among other enhancements.

The funding also enabled him to add world-class talent to the team, including long-time colleague and friend, Quiñones-Mateu – something he had wanted for many years.  

The right opportunity – at last

Quiñones-Mateu (left) and Arts at the Arts/ Quiñones-Mateu/ Troyer Annual Lab Retreat at Circle R Ranch in London. From left, Miguel E. Quiñones-Mateu (left), Eric Arts, and Richard Gibson - A relationship that goes back decades. .

Arts’ connection with Quiñones-Mateu and Gibson goes back to 1997.

When Arts set up his first independent lab to study HIV at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio 25 years ago, the Venezuelan virologist was the lab’s first postdoctoral fellow.

“When I came to meet him at his lab, it was empty. We built the Arts Lab from scratch. We have come a long way and now we will be working together again, shoulder-to-shoulder,” said Quiñones-Mateu.

A few years later at Case Western, they met the final piece of the puzzle, Gibson, who is now the Director of Operations for ImPaKT.

Gibson joined the Arts Lab as its manager in 2003. He has been instrumental in executing some of the team’s biggest ideas. With a knack for managing numerous projects concurrently, the research scientist is a critical liaison between ImPaKT and its academic and corporate partners.

Together, over nearly three decades, Gibson, Arts and Quiñones-Mateu have conceived several innovative ideas.

The viral vaccine seed bank may be their biggest yet.

“Decades ago, we had the knowledge and the skill, but there was no technology to support it,” said Gibson. “Second chances are rare in life, and even rarer in science – this is our third chance to make it happen.”

When Arts moved to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry from Case Western in 2014 Gibson followed. However, Quiñones-Mateu stayed back to finish some ongoing projects in Cleveland, Ohio.

“I had an offer from Western. It was a great opportunity to work on our ideas together,” Quiñones-Mateu said. “But I decided to stay put. I disappointed Eric, Rick (Gibson) and my colleagues at Western. It broke my heart. However, we continued to work on our joint projects and did some great research together, collaborating at a distance. But there were times when I would second-guess my decision of not coming here.”

A phone call and a flight

“This journey has taught us that it’s not just about the destination, but also the extraordinary people we meet along the way and the incredible stories we create together. It’s all coming together now at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.”

—Richard Gibson

In 2019, Quiñones-Mateu surprised everyone when he moved to New Zealand to join the University of Otago as the Webster Family Chair in Viral Pathogenesis.

“The move was a result of a bit of a mid-life crisis. After my daughter went away to college, my wife and I were left staring at an empty nest and I wondered what we could do with the rest of our lives. New Zealand always intrigued me, so I followed my heart.”

There, he struck gold again.

Only a couple of months into the COVID-19 pandemic, he led a team of researchers in isolating SARS-CoV-2 for the first time in the country. His was the only lab in New Zealand, and one of the initial groups worldwide at that time, to have isolated the virus responsible for one of the deadliest pandemics of the last 100 years.

“It opened doors to the possibility of developing a multitude of really interesting projects, including a vaccine candidate for COVID-19 in New Zealand,” said Quiñones-Mateu.

But an intricate web of guidelines in New Zealand made his research work particularly challenging. It nudged him into looking for other opportunities. As if on cue, around the same time Arts secured the federal funding for ImPaKT’s expansion. The phone calls were made and soon after Quiñones-Mateu was on a trans-Pacific flight to Canada. Coming to Western, said Quiñones-Mateu, felt like coming home.

Leading the way in pathogen-fighting research

Today, with Arts’ out-of-the-box thinking, Quiñones-Mateu’s technical acumen, Gibson’s knack for managing and implementing large-scale projects and the critical research of another Schulich Medicine & Dentistry professor, Ryan Troyer – another of Arts Lab’s postdoctoral fellows at Case Western – the idea for a world-leading viral vaccine seed bank and a one-of-its-kind Pathogen Research Centre is about to be realized.

“The time is just right. The COVID19 pandemic has awakened the world from a global amnesia of sorts,” said Quiñones-Mateu. “There’s a realization that vaccines will be our strongest line of defense against future pandemics.”

While the Pathogen Research Centre will facilitate several cutting-edge research projects, one of the interesting scenarios the researchers are investigating is how disease-causing pathogens swiftly travel the globe, for example, via airplanes.

“Lone scientists can’t match the impact of a team.”

—Eric J. Arts

“We are interested in studying scenarios, like the inside of an airplane, to see how pathogens spread within different settings,” said Arts. “We will be wheeling in a slice of an airline cabin to study how pathogens, such as SARSCoV-2 and influenza, transmit themselves under different conditions.”

The Pathogen Research Centre will also include a containment level 3 simulation laboratory designed to accommodate real-world testing modules and a small batch production facility, where therapeutics and products will be tested per industry standards before they are launched into clinical trials.

“We are uniquely positioned in terms of talent, resources and industry partnerships to be the leader in pathogen fighting research in Canada,” said Arts. But now it’s also more than just research and science – and always has been. “Our paths may have diverged and converged in unexpected ways, but each finding in our labs, each experience, has led us to where we are today. This journey has taught us that it’s not just about the destination, but also the extraordinary people we meet along the way and the incredible stories we create together,” said Gibson. “It’s all coming together now at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.”