Western University chemistry alumnus Donald Gerson and his vaccine company, PnuVax, have received funding from American billionaire Bill Gates for the development of low-cost pneumonia vaccines.

PnuVax has been awarded three times by Gates, totalling about $40 million in funding.

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that is caused by bacteria or viruses. Despite available treatment, pneumonia vaccines remain inaccessible in low-income countries.

Gerson spent most of his career developing vaccines, having worked at Western, the University of Toronto and York University over the years. Near retirement, he saw the vaccine he had worked on at Wyeth, a pharmaceutical company, being sold for $150 per dose.

Irritated at the price and the idea that, despite his hard work, one-third of the world’s children were not able to obtain the vaccine, he decided to launch the company PnuVax.

“There have been vaccines for pneumonia since the early 1900s,” said Gerson. “But they didn’t work for little kids and little kids get pneumonia and die — it is still the largest killer of children from zero to five years old in the world today.”

The initial question was whether it was possible to produce a pneumonia vaccine for one dollar a dose and still make a profit. Using his retirement money and funding from Gates and other investors, PnuVax was able to buy an inexpensive facility and license technology to create a vaccine that worked for children for a low price.

Unlike other funding organizations, Gerson and his company had to wait for the attention of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as they do not accept applications. Gerson believes that because PnuVax had received good research results and had the technology, facilities and employees, that they were able to receive the funding from Gates.

Although the vaccine has not been approved by Health Canada, the current funding from Gates is expected to help with upcoming clinical trials. Gerson is hoping the pneumonia vaccines will be made and exported from Canada to low-income countries in the near future.

“The big positive is that it is Canadian research technology being applied to solve a worldwide problem with important humanitarian aspects,” said Gerson. “Everything from the research and development to exports will benefit Canada, and I think that’s the way I like to see more things happen in this country.”

Gerson said the education he received at Western and his professors contributed to where he is today. He further said he had a long history with the university — he completed his undergraduate degree at Western and taught in the biophysics and chemical engineering department, and his son also completed his PhD at Western.