Dr Lorne A. Babiuk is a world-renowned virologist who has devoted his career to safeguarding the health of animals worldwide. He specializes in immunology, pathogenesis, molecular virology and vaccinology and is a world-renowned expert in infectious diseases and their control, specifically through vaccination. He has invested significant time and energy in teaching, training and mentoring new generations of outstanding researchers and holds an impressive record of achievements in technology transfer. He helped build a highly successful institute and strong international collaborations, and has contributed extensively to the formulation of science policy in Canada.
Throughout his career, he has combined molecular biology, immunology, and whole animal studies to understand the basic biology of infectious diseases, which forms the foundation for their control through vaccinations. His contributions to veterinary medicine are unparalleled, beginning with demonstrating the role of trypsin in the replication of rotavirus. This was a seminal discovery that opened the door for investigations into the biology of the disease which led to a rotavirus vaccine for cattle. Because the cause of calf diarrhea is complex, involving infection with rotavirus, coronavirus, and E. coli K99, he combined these three pathogens into a single vaccine to immunize pregnant cattle to prevent neonatal diarrhea—a truly novel approach to reduce economic losses estimated to exceed $300 million annually in North America. This was the first of six world-first vaccines developed under his leadership that have had global impact.
The development of these six different vaccines by Dr. Babiuk has dramatically improved the health of animals around the world and the livelihood of livestock producers by reducing economic losses due to infectious diseases. For example, the calf scours vaccine has saved producers hundreds of millions of dollars annually, translating into reduced food costs for consumers. Prior to vaccination, some calf crop losses could be as high as 25 per cent, whereas following vaccination, these losses were reduced to less than 5 per cent. Similarly, the vaccine for bovine respiratory disease (shipping fever) has saved livestock producers hundreds of millions of dollars and is a critical component of all intensive livestock operations. Currently, all feed lot operators vaccinate to ensure losses from shipping fever are controlled. More recently, Babiuk developed a capripox virus vaccine which protects sheep, goats, and cattle against sheep pox, goat pox and lumpy skin disease of cattle. More importantly, he was able to insert the genes from the protective antigens from peste des petits ruminants and Rift Valley fever into the pox virus to protect animals against all five diseases. Saving one goat out of a small herd of four or five may be the difference in whether or not a child goes to bed hungry. Furthermore, reducing Rift Valley fever in animals not only protects the animals but also results in the protection of humans from this zoonotic disease. The need to develop thermal stable vaccines, where transportation to rural communities in developing countries results in vaccine inactivation caused by high temperature during transport, is critical. This thermostable vaccine will significantly impact food security and the health of animals as well as people who depend on livestock for their food and livelihood. This work in the developing world has the potential to dramatically change the economic landscape for 500 million small holder farmers and their families, and dramatically impact child development through improved childhood nutrition.
As a young faculty member in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatchewan, Canada, Lorne Babiuk saw an opportunity to link solid fundamental research with translation for the benefit of society. As a scientific member of the Veterinary Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO), which he joined in 1975, he developed a research program focusing on viral host interactions specifically on viral-bacterial synergies leading to pneumonia. He led the organization from 1993 to 2007, turning the organization at the University of Saskatchewan into a global leader in infectious disease research of animals. Under his leadership, the organization embraced biotechnology and collaborations with other universities and industry and received the largest grant ever from Genome Canada ($27 million and renewed for $17 million) to understand the pathogenesis of various infectious diseases.
During his tenure, Babiuk not only built the physical structure (three building projects of $2 million, $19.5 million and $140 million) but also attracted approximately $300 million in funding to the University from governments, industry, and philanthropy, in order to recruit key researchers. This legacy continues at the University of Saskatchewan based on the momentum created by Babiuk’s efforts.
As he conducted his ground breaking research and led VIDO, Babiuk also had the foresight to recognize the importance of protecting intellectual property in an academic environment and, as a result of his activities, VIDO has been awarded over 90 U.S. patents with an additional 35 pending. He personally holds 40 patents. All patents are licensed by industry for world-wide use and have played a critical role in the maturation of VIDO into a translation/research organization.
Furthermore, Babiuk was pivotal in negotiating research contracts and licensing agreements with major global animal biopharmaceutical companies as well as start-up biotechnology companies focusing on animal vaccines and immune modulators. He also played a major role in establishing research agreements/collaborations on behalf of VIDO with more than 30 national and multinational companies to commercialize laboratory discoveries. These relationships are all impacting livestock around the world. For example, the porcine circovirus patents are the foundation for the circovirus vaccines produced and marketed globally by Merial and Boehringer Ingelheim. These vaccines are estimated to have an 8:1 return on investment in swine herds. His most recent activities in the developing world have a great potential for improving the livelihood of small holder farmers. Improving the efficacy of livestock production in developing countries through reduced diseases is helping the world meet the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals. Livestock account for 40 per cent of agricultural GDP in developing countries, with up to 80 per cent of the population employed in agriculture, thus making livestock health a critical component of the ecohealth system in society.
Training of the future generation of veterinarians and researchers has also been a primary goal of Dr. Babiuk throughout his career. He has won teaching awards from students and major international research awards for his work in helping understand disease processes and then developing strategies for their control. His 100 plus trainees (PhD and post-doctoral fellows) populate all corners of the world, working in governments, organizations, biotechnology and major biopharmaceutical companies, as well as academia. His former trainees include department chairs in universities; directors of major research institutes and of government laboratories or government regulatory agencies; senior officials in international agencies (OIE and WHO); and senior directors of global pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology companies, government patent offices, as well as legal firms involved in the protection of intellectual property. This large contingent of highly trained individuals is continuing Dr. Babiuk’s legacy of excellence in research in food animal health and impacting all aspects of animal health through the development of products, training the next generation of agriculture specialists, and influencing the creation of policy and subsequent practice.
In his career thus far, Lorne Babiuk has been instrumental in enhancing linkages between the veterinary and human disease communities, which is extremely timely, as currently more than 75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic (transferred from animals to humans). This kind of collaboration has led to the novel concept of developing vaccines for animals to protect humans and to the One Health Concept, of which he has been a pioneer. His consultations with major animal health companies around the world, as well as with international and national organizations, governments, and policy-making bodies, attest to his global recognition.