The MUHC Vaccine Study Centre has been conducting top quality vaccine and epidemiological research studies for more than 30 years

Located in suburban Pierrefonds, Québec, the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) Vaccine Study Centre (VSC) has been dedicated to providing excellence in clinical research services since 1991.

Clinical trials like those conducted at the VSC offer hope for many people and an opportunity to help researchers find better preventative treatments in the future. The VSC medical team includes clinicians from both the MUHC and the Montreal Children’s Hospital (MCH) who specialize in infectious disease. Nurses and other health research specialists at the VSC are dedicated to working with these investigators and with the public to advance medical knowledge and patient care.

The Vaccine Study Centre is involved in three kinds of studies. One of these is working with large and small pharmaceutical companies that are evaluating new vaccines and the best ways to use existing vaccines.

“Clinical studies are essential to the process of bringing a new vaccine to market,” explains Jesse Papenburg, MD, co-director of the Vaccine Study Centre and a scientist in the Infectious Diseases and Immunity in Global Health Program (IDIGH) at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC). “Some of these studies lead to important improvements in healthcare. They can potentially change the way we practice medicine and prevent common diseases.”

The VSC is also involved in studies that are funded by government bodies like the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Canadian Immunization Research Network (CIRN).

“Funding from governmental organizations helps us develop the best vaccine strategies for the Canadian population,” Papenburg continues. “That’s important – not because Canadians are fundamentally different from anyone else, but because sometimes the questions being asked through these studies are relevant to the Canadian healthcare system and Canadian vaccine programs. The RI-MUHC and the Vaccine Study Centre have been important contributors to this kind of study and the randomized trials that follow. ”

The Vaccine Study Centre also conducts non-clinical studies. These observational studies are usually related to diseases that can be prevented by vaccination and focus on specific subgroups of people versus the population as a whole. For example, the VSC looked at the impact of vaccination against COVID-19 on people with certain rheumatological disorders.

Services at the MUHC Vaccine Study Centre

The VSC team has built expertise in the recruitment and conduct of vaccine and epidemiological research studies over more than thirty years. Currently, for example, they are conducting studies aimed at preventing Lyme disease in children, and preventing pathogenic E. coli disease in older adults. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the VSC was able to contribute quickly to the understanding of emerging vaccine options to combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus. A study on the long-term effects of COVID-19 on healthcare workers infected with the virus is ongoing.

Thirty years of operation have helped the VSC to develop a large database of contacts interested in participating in clinical research. This greatly facilitates recruitment and retention, two crucial aspects of a successful clinical trial.

“We use many different methods to manage recruitment, which is such an important part of ensuring a study’s success,” says Deirdre McCormack, clinical research manager at the VSC. “After more than 30 years, we have a big network!”

People choose to take part in vaccine trials for many reasons. Healthy volunteers say they participate to help others and to contribute to moving science forward. Participants with an illness or disease also participate to help others, and may also receive vaccines at the cutting edge of medical advances, as well as access to additional resources.

Retention is another crucial aspect in the conduct of clinical trials. Some studies can go on for years, but participants are not obligated to continue their participation. The VSC credits their team’s holistic and personal approach for consistently excellent retention rates. The research nurses working at the VSC all have a background in primary care and understand the importance of truly involving participants discussing issues beyond the study protocol, and providing advice and referrals as needed. A VSC nurse is on always on call and available to study participants.

The VSC works with the CIRN, a publicly funded network of vaccine research investigators and research sites across Canada. All CIRN studies are investigator-driven and contribute to public health policy. The VSC has also been an IMPACT (Immunization Monitoring Program ACTive) study site since 1993. IMPACT provides surveillance data to the Public Health Agency of Canada on vaccine adverse events and vaccine preventable diseases.

A history of serving the community

The MUHC Vaccine Study Centre was founded in 1991 by Dr. Elaine Mills, then the Director of Pediatrics and Infectious Diseases at the MCH. Co-founder Deirdre McCormack was also working at the MCH, at that time as an infection control practitioner. The two saw a clear need for a vaccine study centre that could take on both industry studies and academic studies at a time when vaccine research was booming both locally and internationally.

“Many important vaccines were introduced in the 1960s and we all got used to them because they worked,” explains Brian Ward, MD, who currently serves as the VSC’s co-director and has been involved with the centre since 1992. “But we didn’t know very much about them. We knew what the companies had told us about how to use them and what their strengths and limitations were. There was general recognition of the potential importance of such study sites from both industry, which needed more vaccine study sites, and the Public Health Agency of Canada, which needed its own independent source of data.”

Members of the clinical research nursing team at the MUHC Vaccine Study Centre

Very quickly, the VSC’s services were in demand. The team needed more space than was available at the MCH, located at that time on Tupper Street in Montreal. A move to Pierrefonds in 1992 meant more workspace for the research team, while participants in VSC research studies also appreciated the increased accessibility for persons with disabilities, strollers and small children.

Since that time, the VSC has conducted more than 200 clinical research studies and enrolled more than 8,000 participants in various vaccine and epidemiological research projects.

“At the MUHC Vaccine Study Centre, one of the things that we’re very, very good at is going above and beyond,” says McCormack. “Our participants know that the nurses, the research assistants and the doctors at the VSC are going take really good care of them.”