(Edmonton) Leading-edge virology research in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry received another major boost Thursday with a $5-million donation from international pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline Inc., a long-time industry partner of the University of Alberta.

The contribution – “the largest endowment we have made as a company in Canada to an academic institution” – is in recognition of the groundbreaking work and excellence of the virology team at the new Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, and the U of A’s rising status as a world-class centre of research and teaching, said Paul Lucas, GlaxoSmithKline Canada president and CEO.

“I’ve been coming to Edmonton for 35 years and I have seen an unbelievable transformation in this university and the position it now takes in Canada’s university system,” Lucas said at a news conference also attended by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and U of A president Indira Samarasekera. “There’s lots to be proud of here.”

The faculty announced that the GSK Virology Research Support Endowment Fund will be used to help sustain the operations of the Li Ka Shing Institute, where more than two dozen researchers are studying how viruses infect cells and cause disease, how viral infections can be prevented and new ways to treat them.

Lucas called GSK’s contribution an investment in the “great science that’s being done here at the U of A and specifically the institute, and the researchers who are doing this great work… I really believe that this (viruses) is one of the areas that is going to be a real challenge to the human race and to health-care systems around the world, and we hope the work that’s being done here will transform the treatment and prevention of viral disease,” he said.

The pharmaceutical giant’s relationship with the faculty and university goes back 23 years. Lucas and internationally respected U of A hepatitis researcher Lorne Tyrrell each recalled the early days of discovery in the late 1980s when Tyrrell began work with GSK that led to the development of a landmark treatment for hepatitis B – a drug now helping millions around the globe. Then in the 1990s, GSK made a major contribution toward the construction of a Level 3 virology lab on campus, and provided funding for the GlaxoSmithKline Chair in Virology, held by Tyrrell, and the Glaxo Heritage Research Institute of Virology – which earlier this year became the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology with Tyrrell as the institute director.

This latest gift is a tremendous vote of confidence from GlaxoSmithKline, said Philip Baker, dean of the faculty. “I firmly believe that we can only translate research – get it from the laboratory to the patient – by partnering with industry,” Baker said. “This money will continue to build a critical mass of expertise, second to none, of researchers discovering vaccines and treatments for some of the globe’s most devastating infectious diseases like hepatitis C and tuberculosis.”

Samarasekera said GSK’s support over the years has been instrumental in the development of the virology research programs, and enabled the university to leverage additional funding from agencies such as the former Alberta Heritage Fund for Medical Research, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and Genome Canada.

“They (GSK) have transformed the learning and discovery experience of students and faculty,” she said. “They continue to enhance our ability to recruit major new talent and attract external funding that will propel this institution onto a whole new level. But, most of all, GSK’s gifts have and will continue to transform lives around the world.”

Had it not been for the pharmaceutical company’s initial investment, there would be no Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology today, university and faculty representatives stressed. Part of an international network of leading virology centres, it was established this year with funding from the federal and provincial governments – and a major gift ($28 million) last April from the Li Ka Shing (Canada) Foundation and double-matching funding ($52.5 million) from the Alberta government.

It also enabled the faculty to attract world-renowned clinical virologist Michael Houghton, who left the United States to join the institute. The faculty recruited Houghton through the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) program, a federal initiative aimed at bringing the world’s best scientists to Canada. Houghton and his collaborators discovered the hepatitis C virus in 1989.

Lucas acknowledged the role of the Alberta government, saying the province has supported innovation by making “significant investments” and putting the right framework and policies in place. “We look forward to working with you to develop a vibrant life sciences cluster here in Alberta,” he said to the premier.

Alberta has a longstanding tradition of excellence in medical research, Stelmach said. “With our new Alberta Innovates (research funding) system and Campus Alberta institutions working together, the momentum is building.

“We are honoured by (GSK’s) significant contribution – and now we hear it’s the largest contribution – and also by the fact that you recognize the potential here at the University of Alberta,” the premier said. “Of the tens of thousands of medical faculties in the world, the University of Alberta is now in the top 50,” Stelmach also noted.

“We’re not only one step closer to another discovery in the field of virology, we’re also one giant step closer to moving to a knowledge-based economy in this province. Oil and gas will be with us for decades but we do have to position this province for the next generation and you have helped us immensely today.”

Tyrrell said the new GSK endowment will help pay for day-to-day operation of the institute, and maintain core laboratory facilities critical to virology and immunology research. This infrastructure allows U of A scientists to conduct internationally competitive research, he said.