A Canadian alliance of corporate, government and university researchers was set to launch large-scale field trials this month in Alberta on a vaccine intended to attack E. coli O157:H7 bacteria in live animals.

Plans call for trials to begin with 72,000 cows and, pending a successful outcome, researchers hope to commercialize the vaccine in Canada in 2002. The undertaking received a boost in July when Technology Partnerships Canada (TPC) provided biopharmaceutical company and alliance member Bioniche Life Sciences Inc. with $9.6 million in investment funds to support continued clinical studies of the vaccine. Other alliance members include the University of British Columbia (UBC), the Alberta Research Council Inc. (ARC), the Canadian Bacterial Diseases Network (CBDN) and the Veterinary Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO).

At a July ceremony announcing details of the TPC investment, VIDO director Lorne Babiuk noted that initial studies undertaken by VIDO confirmed the efficacy the vaccine, indicating that it dramatically reduces the levels of E. coli O157:H7 excreted by cattle into the environment. The vaccine reduces the shedding of E. coli 0157:H7 three orders of magnitude or more, he said, resulting in one-thousand-fold less bacteria.

E. coli, a fecal coliform bacteria that is known to multiply in the digestive tracts of healthy cattle, can cause serious illness or death among people who ingest contaminated water, meat or produce. In addition to several outbreaks in the U.S., the bacteria was responsible for the Walkerton, Ontario crisis in May 2000 that resulted in thousands of illnesses and seven deaths. The outbreak occurred when rain washed cattle manure into municipal wells that supplied the town's water system.

The vaccine was developed by Dr. Brett Finlay, a professor of biotechnology at UBC. Finlay's research led him to discover how E.coli O157:H7 attaches to intestinal cells, which in turn led to the development of a vaccine. The UBC University Industry Liaison Office has filed for patents on Finlay's discovery.

ARC has signed an agreement with UBC and VIDO to license the new vaccine, and will produce it at its Edmonton facility. The plant is the largest publicly owned facility in North America and is approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and by Agriculture Canada and Agri-Food Canada.

Vetrepharm, Bioniche's animal health division, will lead commercialization of the vaccine.