GlycoNet Director Dr. Lorne Babiuk: First Canadian to win World Agriculture Prize

GlycoNet Director and U of A researcher first Canadian to win major international award

By Alexis Kienlen 

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Dr. Lorne Babiuk, GlycoNet Director and vice-president of research at the University of Alberta, has helped develop six vaccines and made major contributions to animal health.

He’s helped pioneer the development of vaccines used by livestock producers worldwide, and now he’s the first Canadian to be named a World Agriculture Prize Laureate.Lorne Babiuk, world-renowned virologist and vice-president of research at the University of Alberta, was awarded the prestigious prize in recognition of his lifetime achievement.

“Vaccines, whether for producers or for humans, have saved more lives than any other medical intervention has,” he said.

Babiuk, who assisted in the creation of six vaccines for livestock, focuses on the development of vaccines for diseases that can transfer from livestock to humans.

Animal vaccines and the prevention of animal disease has a huge impact on human health and economies.

“The rotavirus vaccine (for E. coli/scours) saves hundreds of millions of dollars a year for producers,” he said. “But most importantly, no producer or veterinarian likes to see a young calf die.”

That’s doubly true in the developing world “where a lot of these smallholder farmers are living on $2 a day with four goats,” he added.

“If one of the goats dies, the kids go hungry without any milk to drink. We know that protein and nutrition influence cognitive development, and for the rest of their lives, they could have devastating consequences. It is a hugely important area of research — especially in the developing world.”

Though he plans to retire in June, Babiuk, who has been at the University of Alberta since 2007, is hard at work on his seventh vaccine — a five-in-one vaccine to stop pox viruses in sheep, goats, and cattle.

“In the developing world, it’s very difficult to maintain a cold chain and keep vaccines refrigerated,” he said. “So what we have done is take a virus that causes lumpy skin diseases in cattle and another that causes goat pox in goats and sheep pox in sheep. They are all pox vaccines and we’ve been able to show that they are very closely related. If you can make one vaccine, you can protect three different species against three different diseases.”

The researchers can put genes from other viruses into the vaccine, so that producers can vaccinate for more than one disease at a time.

The vaccine Babiuk is currently working on could also target Rift Valley fever, which is similar to West Nile virus and transmitted by mosquitoes. It is infectious to both humans and animals.

“It is much more virulent than West Nile,” he said. “West Nile is a summer picnic compared to the devastation of Rift Valley fever.

“Infectious diseases don’t carry passports. With Rift Valley, it could be here tomorrow.”

Babiuk’s achievements in virology have made significant contributions to the global livestock industry. He worked on the rotavirus for calves, which other researchers used to create a matching vaccine for humans. He and his team of researchers also developed the world’s first genetically engineered vaccine for shipping fever, a disease that previously cost the North American cattle industry about $1 billion annually.

And he was also part of the team that helped develop the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan in 1975. He went on to lead the organization from 1993 to 2007, and helped turn it into an internationally renowned research centre.

Babiuk will accept the 2016 World Agricultural Laureate award in Cape Town, South Africa on Oct. 18.

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