Researchers join the fight against COVID-19

By Jennifer Ganton and Amelia Buchanan

As hospitals and communities band together to fight COVID-19, researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are harnessing their unique expertise and resources to help. They are ramping up research on possible treatments and vaccines, while also offering lab resources and personal protective equipment to help with clinical care and diagnostic testing. Some research staff with clinical expertise are also prepared to move to the front lines and care for patients if needed. At the same time, other researchers are working from home in order to stay safe and allow The Ottawa Hospital to focus on the challenge at hand.

“Our researchers are doing everything they can to help our hospital, our community and the world in the fight against COVID-19,” said Dr. Duncan Stewart, Executive Vice-President of Research at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa. “The Ottawa community has been so supportive of research and our teams want to give back in any way they can.”


Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are exploring more than a dozen different research projects related to COVID-19, a few of which are highlighted below. Many of these projects are being done in partnership with other hospitals and universities around the world.

Working towards a vaccine

Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are harnessing their expertise in making cancer-fighting viruses to develop a possible vaccine against COVID-19, in partnership with scientists and clinicians within Canada and around the world. The vaccine would contain small parts of genetic material from the COVID-19 virus, embedded into a different virus that does not cause human disease. This replicating viral vaccine would also produce its own adjuvant – a substance that stimulates a stronger immune response to the vaccine and makes it work better.

Once a promising vaccine is created, the team will be able to make large quantities in The Ottawa Hospital’s Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre. This facility is the only hospital-based lab in Canada capable of producing virus-based vaccines and therapies for clinical trials.

Partners on this project at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa include Drs. Carolina Ilkow, John Bell, Taha Azad, Stephen Boulton, Mathieu Crupi, Nikolas Martin, Joanna Poutou, Ragunath Ragaravelu. The list of partners at other institutions is still being finalized.

“Our researchers are doing everything they can to help our hospital, our community and the world in the fight against COVID-19,” says Dr. Duncan Stewart, Executive Vice-President of Research at The Ottawa Hospital.

Another technology developed at The Ottawa Hospital that could help with the development of a COVID-19 vaccine is referred to as a “viral sensitizer”. Developed, by Dr. Jean-Simon Diallo, this technology can speed up the production of viral vaccines by more than 1,000-fold in some cases. This technology is now available commercially through Virica Biotech.

Finally, researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are also collaborating with Dr. Marc-André Langlois of the University of Ottawa on the development of a nasal spray vaccine and therapeutic antibodies against COVID-19.

Learning from our COVID-19 patients and testing therapies

Researchers around the world are sharing their experiences and results and working together to determine the best approaches to treat patients with COVID-19.

To help with this global effort, infectious disease researchers at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa are working locally and with networks to create a registry of COVID-19 patients. Under the leadership of Dr. Michaeline McGuinty and Dr. William Cameron, the researchers plan to look for patterns among cases and determine how well treatments are working. They will also use blood samples to study the virus and the body’s response.

The researchers are also exploring clinical trials of existing therapies that may be helpful in treating COVID-19.

Calming the immune system in critically ill patients

The immune system plays a crucial role in defending the body against COVID-19, but sometimes it can become overactivated, resulting in severe damage to the lungs (called Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome or ARDS). In COVID-19 patients, ARDS is the major cause of severe illness and death.

Previous studies have shown that mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) can dampen an overactive immune response and help patients with ARDS related to other kinds of infections. Very early studies from China suggest this approach might work for COVID-19 patients as well.

The Ottawa Hospital’s Dr. Duncan Stewart is leading a team of researchers  working to launch a clinical trial of MSC therapy for COVID-19 patients with ARDS. They will build on their extensive experience in manufacturing MSCs and leading the world’s first clinical trial of MSCs for septic shock. This project will likely involve partners in Ontario and Europe, working in a concerted effort to find novel therapies to improve outcomes in COVID-19 patients. Partners at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa include Drs. Dean Fergusson, Shane English, David Courtman, Bernard Thébaud and Manoj Lalu.

Repurposing existing drugs and finding new ones 

Drs. Taha Azad, Ragunath Singaravelu, Jean-Simon Diallo and John Bell of The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa have developed a novel bio-sensor that can identify small molecule drugs that block the COVID-19 virus from attaching to cells, thereby preventing infection. First, they plan to test this novel approach on a library of more than 1,000 small molecules that have been approved to treat other diseases. Then they will attempt to identify novel antivirals drugs from a library of more than 200,000 small molecules.

Community support essential 

All of the COVID-19 research projects being explored at The Ottawa Hospital will make use of shared research equipment, resources and facilities that have been developed over many years, thanks to generous support from donors through The Ottawa Hospital Foundation.

“Thanks to generous support from the community over the years, we’ve been able to develop unique research facilities and technologies that we are now rapidly applying to the fight against COVID-19,” said Dr. Stewart. “Similarly, today’s community support for research means we will be ready for tomorrow’s health challenges, whatever they may be.”

Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are also applying for peer-reviewed grants to directly support their COVID-19 research projects.

Jennifer Ganton and Amelia Buchanan work in research communications at The Ottawa Hospital.