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April 13, 2023
Infectious diseases pose a real and dire threat to our world. One only need look at the past three years to understand the toll a single, microscopic virus can take. For millennia, viruses, bacteria and other microbes have wreaked havoc on civilization. The Black Death of the 14th Century is estimated to have claimed up to 200 million lives. The influenza pandemic of 1918–1919 took between 25–50 million lives. Though we cannot see them, microbes have had a profound effect on our lives, humanity and the world.
Recognizing the critical need to better understand and fight infectious diseases, infectious disease physician and medical microbiologist Dr. Don Sheppard launched the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4) in 2018 alongside colleagues Dr. Marie Hudson and Dr. Marcel Behr. MI4 brings together over 250 researchers and 5,000 staff from a wide range of fields to find new solutions for some of humanity’s deadliest threats: tuberculosis, antimicrobial resistance, COVID-19 and many more. The group also studies immunity and how the immune system can be harnessed to fight infection.
An extraordinary $15 million gift from the Doggone Foundation to the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) Foundation and McGill University gave MI4 the start-up funds it needed to launch. Five years later, now under the helm of Director Dr. Marcel Behr, MI4 is celebrating many extraordinary accomplishments.
“Our fifth anniversary is an opportunity to reflect. To see how far we’ve come in five years gives us motivation to see how much further we can go in the next five years,” says Dr. Behr.
Whether taking on an unprecedented pandemic, facing off against the growing threat of microbes that are resistant to antibiotics, or uncovering how the microbiome plays a role in our health, MI4 is ready for whatever the microbial world throws at us.
The COVID-19 pandemic: MI4’s first test
MI4 came to be because its leadership understood that the threat of a pandemic was looming.
“Did we expect a pandemic? Of course. There had been SARS, then MERS and Zika. We were putting up slides at talks showing the interconnectedness of the world via airplane routes and telling people that a pathogen in Hong Kong could be in Canada in one flight. We had no idea at the time that a pandemic was just 18 months away,” says Dr. Behr.
As soon as reports of a mysterious virus came out of Wuhan, China, MI4 began to mobilize. Its scientists recognized how dire the situation could become, and when the pandemic was declared on March 11, 2020, MI4 was already researching the virus and searching for ways to stop it. Their time for action had come.
Mere weeks after the pandemic was declared, the MUHC Foundation had raised $4 million to support MI4’s coronavirus research. Generous donors such as the Hewitt Foundation, the Trottier Family Foundation and the late Elspeth McConnell stepped up to provide this critical funding.
“Our donors recognized right away how dire the situation was. People around the world were getting sick and dying—we had to act right away, and we are so grateful to our wonderful donors for supporting MI4 in its many efforts to keep us safe,” says Julie Quenneville, President and CEO of the MUHC Foundation.
With donor support, MI4 was able to launch over 50 projects to research everything from testing to transmission to treatments.
"We had 250 researchers who would have been sitting on their hands during the entire first wave of COVID-19 if not for the funding from our community. The donations helped us make an immediate difference,” says Dr. Sheppard, who served as MI4’s director until 2021.
MI4’s quick response to COVID-19 resulted in new tests and testing strategies, clinical trials of many potential treatments, efforts to create a vaccine, public health campaigns to support marginalized populations, and many more important studies that helped expand our understanding of the coronavirus.
The MUHC Foundation is proud to have contributed a total of over $7 million in donations to this monumental effort.
Antimicrobial resistance: A looming threat to human health
Today, MI4 has set its sights on a new global threat: antimicrobial resistance (AMR). AMR occurs when bacteria and other microbes become resistant to antibiotics, disinfectants and other antimicrobial products. Without reliable antibiotics, even the simplest of surgeries could result in major infections. Similarly, hallmarks of modern medicine such as chemotherapy, transplantation and joint replacements—all of which require antibiotics—could come with much more risk in the not-so-distant future. The World Health Organization estimates that AMR could jeopardize 10 million lives worldwide by 2050. To tackle this growing problem, MI4 launched the McGill Antimicrobial Resistance Centre in 2022.
“No new classes of antibiotics have been developed since the 1990s, and the discovery pipeline is dry. If we don’t act now, we could be living in a post-antibiotic world. At the AMR Centre, we will be able to explore innovative new ways to prevent and treat resistant infections,” says Dr. Dao Nguyen, Director of the McGill Antimicrobial Resistance Centre.
Under the leadership of Dr. Nguyen, the McGill Antimicrobial Resistance Centre is thinking outside the box to create solutions to antimicrobial resistance. Researchers are developing coatings that kill microbes on contact, which could be used on everything from handrails to hip replacements; working alongside a hospital in Ethiopia to train health care professionals in best practices to avoid the evolution of resistant microbes; and searching for new antibiotics in unlikely places, such as the Arctic. These and many more innovative projects are helping us avoid a post-antibiotic world.
The MUHC Foundation has raised over $8 million to support the creation of the McGill Antimicrobial Resistance Centre and fund research, equipment and personnel.
The microbiome: A microscopic world of possibility
On the immunity side, the McGill Centre for Microbiome Research is delving into the world of microbes that call our bodies home. The microbiome is a collection of micro-organisms—bacteria, viruses or fungi—that live on and inside us. Though this idea may give you the heebie-jeebies, our microbiomes are critical to our health and help shape who we are. They are believed to affect everything from mental health to heart disease risk. Led by Dr. Irah King, the centre is working to better understand the role the microbiome could play in improving health.
“One exciting project we have started is to identify bacteria in our intestine that eat the “bad” cholesterol in our diet associated with heart disease and Alzheimer’s Disease. We’re hoping that if we identify these bacteria, we can increase their prevalence in our microbiome. If so, we could harness these bacteria as a treatment to decrease cholesterol absorption and prevent these diseases,” says Dr. King.
COVID-19 response, AMR and the microbiome are just three examples out of dozens of ground-breaking projects, innovative ideas and interdisciplinary collaborations taking place at MI4. Made possible in large part thanks to the generosity of donors, MI4 is now a global leader in curbing infectious disease—one that was created right here in Montreal.
You can help MI4 create a healthier world. The MUHC Foundation’s Dream Big. Solve Humanity’s Deadliest Puzzles campaign is raising millions in support of MI4. To learn more and to donate, visit https://muhcfoundation.com/works/solve-humanitys-deadliest-puzzles