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New name, new mission for the McGill AIDS Centre
Established in 1990 under the direction of the late Dr. Mark Wainberg, for three decades the McGill AIDS Centre has been at the forefront of research into the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Now, the members of the Centre prepare to write a new chapter in its history, as it transforms into the McGill Centre for Viral Diseases.

Based at the Lady Davis Institute (LDI) of the Jewish General Hospital, the Centre became internationally recognized for its ground-breaking discoveries that have dramatically changed health outcomes for people worldwide. In the early 1990s, Dr. Wainberg and his colleagues were the first to identify the anti-HIV-1 activity of 3TC and test the drug in human patients. Dr. Wainberg’s lab also demonstrated the superior anti-HIV-1 activity of dolutegravir. Both of these drugs are still used in first-line antiretroviral regimens.

Many other Centre members have also made important contributions including Dr. Catherine Hankins, previously Associate Director of the Centre and now Co-Chair of Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task force, who pioneered HIV study in high-risk populations. Dr. Nahum Sonenberg’s research led to the ground-breaking discovery of the molecular mechanisms behind the regulation of translation for cells and viruses. And Dr. Norbert Gilmore, now an emeritus member of the McGill AIDS Centre, became a renowned HIV and AIDS specialist and a champion for human rights of HIV-infected individuals.

However, while the Centre’s origins may lie in HIV research, it has evolved over the past decade as its members began studying other viruses that pose serious threats to global health. The Centre’s scientists have built research programs in areas such as basic virology, immunology, drug discovery, epidemiology, population studies and clinical research. This growing expertise in emerging diseases reflected a need to pivot the Centre to a new name while defining a renewed vision and mission for its work.

“Mark Wainberg was a pioneer, both in the lab and on the front lines, who had an inestimable impact on the lives of millions of people through his transformative research and through his extraordinary advocacy,” says Dr. David Eidelman, Vice-Principal (Health Affairs) and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at McGill. “He had long envisioned that the study of other important viral pathogens would become part of the Centre’s work. I know that Mark would be thrilled to see that vision become reality.”

In 2017, the process began to formalize expansion of the Centre and redefine its mission to provide solutions to all viral diseases that threaten public health. But the scope of the Centre had begun to change long before that. Around 2010, many of the labs which originally worked on HIV expanded their research to discover treatments for other emerging viruses like Zika, Dengue and Ebola. In time, scientists at the Centre also turned their attention to hepatitis viruses, herpes viruses, human papillomavirus and influenza virus. Recent examples include Dr. Eduardo Franco’s work to advance understanding of human papillomavirus infection as the cause of cervical cancer and Dr. Marina Klein’s work leading “Montréal Sans HepC”, a community-focused program which aims to make Montreal the first city in North America to eliminate hepatitis C. This year, many of the Centre’s labs pivoted to studying SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19. More recently, Dr. Brian Ward has been leading the development of a plant-produced COVID-19 vaccine into phase II clinical trial.

Dr. Chen Liang, who first came to the Centre in 1995 to do post-doctoral work under Dr. Wainberg, is the Centre’s Acting Director, a role he assumed after Dr. Wainberg’s untimely death in a drowning accident in 2017. Dr. Liang himself is an internationally renowned HIV researcher whose lab specializes in restriction factors (RFs), innate anti-viral proteins that are the body’s first-line defence against viruses. Dr. Liang discovered two of the few known host RFs, IFITM and MxB, which underpin the key innate anti-HIV-1 mechanisms. He also pioneered the study of using the genome editor CRISPR to cure HIV infection.

Like many, Dr. Liang has recently turned his focus to COVID-19 work, including receiving a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in their first round of funding and collaborating with McGill engineering professor Stephen Yue on another NSERC Alliance COVID-funded grant. He also played an integral role in launching McGill’s two containment level-3 labs for COVID research.

The McGill AIDS Centre, and now the new Centre for Viral Diseases, is part of the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4). “MI4 has mobilized tremendous resources to support COVID research across McGill,” says Dr. Liang. “Many members of our Centre have benefited from the support of MI4 through funding and collaboration. We are very fortunate to have this diverse and interdisciplinary environment nurtured by MI4. With all these, we are better positioned to find solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“MI4 was formed to bring together talented scientists from more than a dozen McGill programs and centres to develop new solutions for infectious and immune diseases and deliver these solutions to the patients and populations who need them most,” says Dr. Don Sheppard, Director of MI4. “The McGill AIDS Centre has been a vital part of our network, and has played a critical role in our research response to COVID-19. Under its new mission as the McGill Centre for Viral Diseases, its members will continue to build on the important breakthroughs they’ve accomplished in the past few decades and join with other scientists across our community to tackle the threat of viral diseases – from COVID-19 to hepatitis C, and help prepare for the next pandemic.”

Dr. Liang says expansion of the new Centre’s focus, to study not only HIV but all important viruses, marks an important day for Dr. Wainberg’s legacy.

“This expansion of the scope of the McGill AIDS Centre is a great tribute to its founder, Mark Wainberg and the tremendous team of researchers he assembled and mentored at the LDI,” notes Dr. Roderick McInnes, who succeeded Dr. Wainberg as Director of the LDI. “The wonderful contributions they have made to the fight against AIDS are an enduring legacy. The disastrous impact of the coronavirus pandemic is a stark reminder of the essential work they must continue to do.”

Adds Dr. Stephen Robbins, who will take the helm of the LDI from Dr. McInnes in January, “As the incoming director of the Lady Davis Institute I want to express my sincere congratulations to all of those involved in the creation of the McGill Centre for Viral Diseases. Its importance and vision are highlighted by the current pandemic and will unite the research community to continue to fight this and other devastating diseases.”

Moving forward, members of the newly-named Centre, working together with the MI4 and broader McGill research communities, will strive to provide solutions, for COVID-19, but also for other viral diseases through research and education to better prepare for future viral pandemics, which will ultimately benefit people across the globe.

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