The University of Alberta’s vice-president of research has won a major international award for his “exceptional and significant” lifetime achievements.
Lorne Babiuk is the 2016 World Agriculture Prize Laureate, an award bestowed by the Global Confederation of Higher Education Associations for Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“This one ranks right at the top,” said Babiuk, a world-renowned virologist who has won numerous international awards for his leadership in vaccine development and research in veterinary infectious disease control, particularly diseases that spread from animals to humans.
“I’m in medicine. I’m in agriculture. These are often two solitudes and to be able to link them and get international awards—it’s very gratifying when you can make an impact that is recognized by two completely different groups,” he said.
Babiuk devoted his career to safeguarding the health of animals and people worldwide, primarily through the development of vaccines. He consistently fulfilled the promise he showed very early on in his career as a virologist when he worked on rotavirus—a devastating disease that can be fatal for calves—and devised a new technique to grow the virus and then developed a vaccine to control it.
It was the first of six vaccines Babiuk played a major role in developing over the years.
“One of the things that veterinarians or cattle producers don’t want to see is young calves dying and they can’t do anything about it. If the cattle producer in southern Alberta loses 25 per cent of his cattle, that has a huge economic impact. But then in the developing world, the 600 million smallholders—many of them women—they have four goats. If one dies, that means a child may go to bed hungry, and we know that nutrition and proteins specifically influences cognitive development in young children. So this has an impact on their livelihood and their ability to function in the future,” explained Babiuk.
Like many other accomplished scientists around the world, Babiuk often questioned assumptions and always looked for different and better ways to find solutions to complex infectious disease issues. For example, in the early ‘80s, at a time when few people thought biotechnology would have any application in the animal health industry, he and his team of researchers developed the world’s first genetically engineered vaccine for shipping fever, a disease that was causing the North American cattle industry $1 billion a year.
A few years later, Babiuk again broke scientific ground when he espoused that understanding the fundamentals of vaccine formulation and delivery rather than antigen production was the key to increasing the efficacy of vaccines. Since then, this theory has become accepted knowledge throughout the scientific community.
Though Babiuk is a prolific researcher who has published more than 500 peer-reviewed papers and has more than 22,000 citations, he has always been committed to bringing research results into the marketplace.
That was evident while he helped build the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan from 1975 onwards and led it from 1993 to 2007, building it into an international research powerhouse that, to date, has produced eight vaccines.
Babiuk’s commitment to mentoring the next generation of researchers is equally impressive. He not only supervised more than 50 PhD students and more than 50 post-doctoral fellows, but also created a unique-in-North America graduate program in vaccinology that looked as much at the ethical and social concerns arising from the production and use of vaccines in various populations as the science.
Although Babiuk has been vice-president of research at the U of A for the past nine years and will retire from the position next June, he has maintained an active research program. He’s in the middle of developing his seventh vaccine, which will protect sheep, goats and cattle from five diseases, and an eight vaccine that will protect poultry from various diseases.
“There is so much to do. You can’t rest on your laurels,” said Babiuk.