When Miguel Quiñones-Mateu landed in London, Ont. from Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand, it marked a significant step on a journey beginning years before.
Two decades ago, Quiñones-Mateu and his friends and colleagues, Eric Arts and Richard Gibson, scratched out ideas for a viral vaccine seed bank on a napkin.
Fast forward to today. Arts, a professor and Canada Research Chair in HIV Pathogenesis and Viral Control at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, is also the executive director of Western’s level 2 and 3 biocontainment laboratory, Imaging Pathogens for Knowledge Translation (ImPaKT). Gibson is ImPaKT’s director of operations.
Quiñones-Mateu is a world-leading virologist. His expertise lies in virus evolution and pathogenesis, extracting valuable details about viral behaviour and using that knowledge to develop antiviral strategies.
While working as a scientist at the Instituto Nacional de Higiene “Rafael Rangel” in Caracas, Venezuela, Quiñones-Mateu was part of a research team responsible for the first isolation of the Venezuela strain of HIV-1. He later took a few samples of those early HIV-1 isolates with him to Spain – sealed in vials on dry ice inside an airplane cabin – as the subject of his doctoral research at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.
In 2019, Quiñones-Mateu moved to the University of Otago, New Zealand, where he was the Webster Family Chair in Viral Pathogenesis and associate dean, research, in the School of Biomedical Sciences.
There, only a couple of months into the COVID-19 pandemic, he led a team of researchers in isolating SARS-CoV-2 for the first time in the country. His was the only lab in New Zealand, and one of the initial groups worldwide at that time, to have isolated the virus responsible for one of the deadliest pandemics of the last 100 years.
In 2022, when Arts secured $16 million in federal funding to expand the facility to house a vaccine seed bank, it just so happened Quiñones-Mateu was looking to leave New Zealand.
“Once I decided to return to North America, I started looking for similar positions in the U.S. and Canada,” Quiñones-Mateu said. “It was Eric who basically told me, ‘Stop looking around, you are coming to Western.’”
And so he did. As the Western Research Chair in Viral Pathogenesis.
Working with his team alongside Arts and Gibson, Quiñones-Mateu is establishing a viral vaccine seed bank at Western that will develop and house ready-to-use vaccines against future viruses.
He’s also leading Western’s participation as one of 80 partners of the Canadian Hub for Health Intelligence and Innovation in Infectious Diseases (H13). The new coalition of universities, hospitals and industry partners was created to support the development of life-saving vaccines and therapeutics, as well as processes that target existing and emerging infectious diseases.
Western Research Chairs program: Recruiting, retaining renowned researchers
Quiñones-Mateu stands among an elite cadre of researchers supported by the Western Research Chairs program. The current cohort includes strategic focus chairs Bipasha Baruah, Stefan Everling, Michael Hallett, Kun Ping Lu, Valerie Oosterveld and Nicole Redvers; advancing research chair Maxwell Smith; and leadership chairs Sarah Gallagher and Raymond Thomas.
Penny Pexman, vice-president, (research) said the program is key to Western supporting innovation, leadership and collaboration among a diverse group of scholars.
“The Western Research Chairs program recognizes the various ways Western scholars advance fundamental discovery, contribute to economic growth, and benefit society,” she said. “Our chairs are top researchers in their respective fields, and I’m grateful we have a program to recognize that and enable even greater impact.”
This month marks Quiñones-Mateu’s first-year anniversary at Western as a WRC. He shared his thoughts on the past year with Western News.
Western News: What does it mean to be recognized through the Western Research Chairs (WRC) program?
Miguel Quiñones-Mateu: Being named the Western Research Chair in Viral Pathogenesis is a highlight of my professional career. An important award not only recognizing my achievements during the last 25 years, but one that opens the door to many more exciting years of scientific discoveries, this time in Ontario, Canada.
The WRC was also instrumental in cementing my decision to join Western. It allowed me to hit the ground running, providing bridge funding to allow me to continue several of my research projects here at Western without any major interruptions.
WN: What’s it been like to be reunited with Eric Arts and Richard Gibson, working on significant projects that could position Western as a world leader in the fight against emerging infectious diseases?
Quiñones-Mateu: The main reason to move to London was to reunite with Eric and Rick. We have been working together since the late 1990s/early 2000s, having very productive research collaborations despite the many miles physically separating our laboratories.
We had been dreaming, for years, about the possibility of working together – in the same institution – again. Eric’s effort to bring me here, with the support of many leaders at Western led by (Schulich Medicine & Dentistry Dean) Dr. John Yoo, made it almost impossible to consider any other option.
“Being in the same building has only expedited the flow of ideas and possibilities. Video conferences and phone calls are no match for a two-minute walk to each of our offices to pitch crazy ideas and discuss science.”
Creating the Viral Pandemic Preparedness Program (VP3) is an idea we had been mulling for several years, and we could finally put it together this year, with the collaboration of a number of colleagues at Western and across Canada.
WN: Having a world-leading virologist is a big win for Western, and being here sounds like a big win for you.
Quiñones-Mateu: I’m extremely fortunate to have found a place where I’m not only enjoying what I do (scientific research), surrounded by an extraordinary group of people, many of whom I can really call friends, but in a high-class academic institution with state-of-the-art facilities that allow us to think big and develop top-notch and competitive research programs.
Joining Western is almost like a family reunion. In addition to Eric and Rick, I’m working with Dr. Ryan Troyer, whom I met while working at Case Western Reserve University and Dr. Patti Kiser. Patti was my first research assistant, in my first laboratory as an independent investigator at the Cleveland Clinic, over 20 years ago.
WN: What are the highlights of the past year?
Quiñones-Mateu: Like any major transition, moving across the world from New Zealand to Canada has been a challenge during this first year. Setting up a new laboratory, continuing projects from the previous lab while establishing and starting new ideas and studies always takes time. That said, everyone at Schulich and Western was amazing, extremely helpful and accommodating, which guaranteed a smooth move.
I’m grateful for the unconditional support I have received from the department of pathology and laboratory medicine, led by Dr. David Driman and Angela DeCandido. There are no words to describe their ability to make me feel at home and welcome even before moving to London.
I spent this year settling in, meeting colleagues, recruiting people (we are already seven in my nascent group), preparing new lectures, and writing both grant proposals and scientific publications. I wouldn’t have been able to do all this without the support and peace of mind granted by the WRC.
WN: What do you most look forward to in the year ahead?
Quiñones-Mateu: With my new group coming together, 2024 will be the year to start launching many different projects. I’m particularly excited about VP3, to establish the tools and new processes that will allow us to study future zoonotic events.
The VP3 is a major initiative aimed to be ready for the next viral pandemic. We all know what happened with the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan is to learn from our mistakes and, this time, be ready by proactively anticipating the genetic profile of the virus(es) potentially responsible for the next pandemic. By doing that, we will save precious time and funds during the development of vaccine candidates, therapeutics, and diagnostic assays. The WRC is supporting the initial work that will lead to the establishment of the VP3.
I’m also quite eager to see the beginning of the construction of the new Pathogen Research Centre (PaRC), which will host innovative facilities (some first-in-class in Canada, perhaps the world) that will allow us to study pathogens in a safe environment, as well as producing biotherapeutics and vaccine candidates under GMP conditions.
Spearheaded by Eric and Rick, with the support of many people at Schulich and Western, the WRC has allowed me to add my two cents to this amazing new facility. I’m really looking forward to all the important scientific discoveries we will accomplish using PaRC and the rest of the state-of-the-art infrastructure at Western.
Current Western Research Chairs
Strategic Focus Chairs
Professor, gender, sexuality and women’s studies, Faculty of Arts and Humanities
Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues
Bipasha Baruah specializes in interdisciplinary research at the intersections of the economy, the environment and equity. She aims to address how we can create economic security for everyone while also preventing further environmental breakdown and improving social equity and justice. Current research projects involve trying to understand how to ensure a low-carbon or green economy – in Canada and locally – will be more gender equitable and socially just than its fossil fuel predecessor.
Through collaborative research, external reviews, consultancies, and secondments, Baruah has worked with the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, the International Renewable Energy Agency, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, UN Food and Agricultural Organization, UN Research Institute for Social Development, Global Green Growth Institute, The Energy and Resources Institute, and Self-Employed Women’s Association in India. Read more
Professor, department of physiology and pharmacology, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry; department of psychology, Faculty of Social Science
Stefan Everling leads a research team focused on unraveling the brain mechanisms underlying cognitive and social functions, including attention, impulse control, and the processing of faces and vocalizations. His work predominantly centers on the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex — key cortical regions at the brain’s forefront crucial for orchestrating complex thoughts and actions.
Operating as a core scientist at the Centre for Functional and Metabolic Mapping within the Robarts Research Institute, Everling and his team leverage cutting-edge technologies such as ultra-high field functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), high-density electrophysiology, and two-photon calcium imaging. These advanced methods enable a deeper exploration of the neural areas and processes fundamental to cognitive control and social cognition.
Professor, department of biochemistry, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry
As the Western Research Chair in Bioinformatics, Michael Hallett focuses on understanding the molecular events that occur early in the evolution of breast cancer, specifically those that occur when cancer cells break through the membrane surrounding breast ducts and invade into the surrounding tissue.
Breast disease detected before this event is easier and more successfully treated than breast disease detected after it has already become invasive.
One of the key challenges in the treatment of such early breast cancers is to not over-treat patients with therapies such as radiation that may not provide any long-term benefit. Hallett’s research uses a mixture of genomics, computational biology/AI, and statistics to build new tools that may change how we treat individuals with breast cancer.
Dr. Kun Ping Lu
Professor, department of biochemistry, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry
Dr. Kun Ping Lu is the Western Research Chair in Biotherapeutics. Alongside his long-term collaborator Dr. Xiao Zhen Zhou, Lu discovered a stress response enzyme called Pin1, whose dysregulation has the opposite impact on cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, major age-related diseases. Lu and Zhou have also further identified Pin1 inhibitors to render aggressive cancer, such as pancreatic cancer, eradicable and created a new generation of innovative conformation-specific antibodies for early diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury, stroke, and sepsis. Their current interests are to further develop their novel Pin1-targeted therapeutics and diagnostics using cell cultures, animal models, and human tissues and translate them to the clinic for the early disease detection and treatment. They most recently made groundbreaking progress towards identifying the root cause and potential therapy for preeclampsia.
Professor, Faculty of Law
Valerie Oosterveld‘s five-year term as the Western Research Chair in International Criminal Justice began January 1, 2024. The appointment recognizes Oosterveld’s renowned expertise and ongoing research in international criminal law and gender-based war crimes. She has published widely in these fields, including on the concept of gender in international criminal law and the interpretation of sexual and gender-based crimes by international criminal courts and tribunals. She is the acting director of Western’s Centre for Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction. As a faculty member of Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration, Oosterveld researches outer space law, particularly international environmental space law, space mining, state responsibility in space, armed conflict in space, a feminist analysis of space law, and Canadian space law. She is
Professor, department of epidemiology and biostatistics; director, Indigenous Planetary Health, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry
Professor Nicole Redvers is a member of the Deninu K’ue First Nation and has worked with various Indigenous patients and communities around the globe, helping to bridge the gap between Indigenous traditional and modern medical and research systems. She is co-founder and past board chair of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation in Yellowknife, and worked as a naturopathic doctor and global medical volunteer for more than a decade before entering academia.Throughout her career, Redvers has been actively involved at regional, national and international levels, promoting the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives in both human and planetary health research and practice. She was recently appointed to the World Health Organization’s Technical Advisory Group on Embedding Ethics in Health and Climate Change Policy. As one of 13 members of the group, Redvers will help deliver a range of tools, materials and evidence-based insights to address this worldwide challenge.
Advancing Leadership Chair
Professor, School of Health Studies, Faculty of Health Sciences
Maxwell Smith, Western Research Chair in Public Health Ethics, focuses on infectious disease ethics and the ethical demands that health equity and social justice place on governments and institutions to protect and promote the public’s health. Smith also serves as an associate director of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy and has appointments in the department of Philosophy, the Schulich Interfaculty Program in Public Health, the department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, the Centre for Research on Health Equity and Social Inclusion, and the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration. Smith also investigates a number of other emerging issues in public health ethics and bioethics, including organ donation, termination of pregnancy, health care decision-making, and artificial intelligence. His external affiliations include serving as a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) Ethics and Governance of Infectious Disease Outbreaks Working Group and the WHO Expert Group on Ethical Considerations of Social Listening and Infodemic Management.
Sarah Gallagher, director, Institute for Earth and Space Exploration
Professor, physics and astronomy, Faculty of Science
Sarah Gallagher is an astrophysicist studying growing supermassive black holes at the centres of distant galaxies and the interactions between galaxies in crowded environments. Her research has been recognized with an Ontario Early Career Researcher Award and a Western University Faculty Scholar Award. From 2018 to 2022, she served as the first Science Advisor to the President of the Canadian Space Agency. In this role, she advised the CSA Executive Committee on space science investments and capacity development and sat on the Departmental Science Advisor Network. She was a co-founder of the pan-Canadian CanCOVID research network, set up to connect the research community in response to the global pandemic. Her contributions in this role were recognized by the Society of Chemical Industry through the Purvis Memorial Award.
Raymond Thomas, scientific director, Biotron Experimental Climate Change Centre
Professor, biology, Faculty of Science
Raymond Thomas studies lipid metabolism and food systems, with expertise in the areas of functional foods development, safety and preservation, horticulture and agriculture. His work applies to broad areas of biology, ranging from plant stress to functional foods and brain health.
In 2022, Thomas became scientific director of the Biotron, Western’s unique, purpose-built facility housing specialized environmental chambers, laboratories and equipment dedicated to research in the fields of environmental sciences, biotechnologies, materials and biomaterials, and engineering.
*With files from Prabhjot Sohal and Cam Buchan, Schulich Communications