DLSPH Blog – Why U of T is launching a public health-​led Immunization Research and Education Centre

September 4/2018

The DLSPH Blog is a digital platform that will explore issues that impact public health and health systems scholars on a biweekly basis. For blog ideas, feedback or comments, contact: communications.dlsph[at]utoronto.ca

Immunization is one of the most effective public health interventions that saves millions of lives every year from infectious disease and the University of Toronto has a proud legacy of leadership in the development of vaccines.

The University of Toronto Antitoxin Laboratory — predecessor of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health — opened more than 100 years ago in the basement of U of T’s Medical Building at a time when Toronto was rife with infectious disease. Under the leadership of Dr. John Gerald (Gerry) FitzGerald, the laboratory developed and produced anti-toxins and vaccines for deadly infectious diseases, including diphtheria, polio and smallpox, in Toronto. Those same diseases are now eliminated from Canada, and smallpox has been eradicated from the whole world thanks to vaccines.

In the 1970s when communicable diseases seemed vanquished by vaccines and antibiotics, the Connaught Laboratories were sold and many public health researchers started to pursue other public health priorities, particularly in chronic disease. In the following decades, U of T became disconnected to its historical narrative as a world-leading immunization research powerhouse. Despite a number of internationally recognized researchers who are extremely productive in the domestic context, the University lacks a strategic focus for research or teaching on immunization, nor a centre to bring researchers and students together.

While U of T has been looking the other way, the immunization field has exploded in multiple directions, with new technology, new vaccines, different strategies for new patient and population groups, and new target diseases. Gaps in our understanding of basic biological and immunological mechanisms are rapidly emerging, such as the correlates of antibody- and cell-mediated protection needed to develop vaccines for emerging infectious diseases, cancer, or a “universal” influenza vaccine.

In the midst of this technological revolution, U of T is punching under its weight in comparison to international peer organizations in immunization. U of T researchers publish more papers than dedicated vaccine centres elsewhere in Canada, but fewer than the top centres in the United States, Europe and Australia. Many large Canadian and international global universities have immunization research centres, but none are based in Ontario and no Canadian centre has public health leadership. Furthermore, few centres in the world possess the interdisciplinary focus that thrives at U of T.

To capitalize on this tremendous opportunity, the DLSPH hosted a workshop and symposium this spring to galvanize researchers from multiple U of T departments, schools and faculties around a shared goal: to create an immunization research and education hub that will propel U of T into the same league as other world-leading universities and enhance its global impact on immunization. The most important outcome of these meetings was overwhelming shared enthusiasm for this goal.

To operationalize the goal, a working group of researchers and leaders from the DLSPH, U of T Medicine and the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work developed a plan to establish a centre for immunization research and education at U of T.

There is strong consensus across the University that this centre must be interdisciplinary in nature; ensure academically rigorous partnerships; clear governance with industry and other funders; and deliver research and education that forges stronger, better immunization systems both locally and globally.

This is exciting work. A cornerstone of public health and medicine, immunization has saved more lives than almost any other health measure over the last 50 years. It has the potential to save millions more by addressing many of the current high profile public health challenges of infectious diseases, including preventing influenza pandemics and antimicrobial resistance.

It’s also an area of medicine that’s been under assault for the last decade, thanks to a small but vocal community of people who believe vaccines are harmful, resulting in significant vaccine hesitancy. In that context it’s even more important that respected institutions such as U of T be a trusted voice. As a publicly funded institution we have a responsibility to shine a spotlight on good science, conduct research to understand how to combat vaccine hesitancy and ensure that our own students graduate with confidence and understanding about the scientific basis, safety and benefits of immunization.

This summer the working group made recommendations to U of T’s public health and medical leadership on how to launch a public health-led institute that leverages existing strengths in health and the humanities, immunology, data science and translational research in a way that honours our historical legacy and lifts U of T’s global reputation. Starting with education, the working group plans to conduct a needs assessment on course content in immunization, develop immunization research student networking and international exchange opportunities, and begin planning for a summer immunization institute.

Strong leadership and thoughtful integration across the university, government, industry and communities will enable the immunization research centre to deliver on its mission of protecting communities and saving lives through excellence in interdisciplinary immunization research and education. With our partners, we will advance new knowledge for immunization and public health across the lifespan, with local and global impact.

– Professor Adalsteinn Brown, Dean, DLSPH, in collaboration with Professor Natasha Crowcroft, Chief of Applied Immunization Research and Evaluation at Public Health Ontario; Professor in Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology at U of T Medicine; Professor of Epidemiology at DLSPH; and Adjunct Scientist at ICES.