Life scientist wins prestigious Steacie

by Stephen Forgacs

Staff writer

Terry Snutch, a professor in UBC's Biotechnology Lab, has won the Steacie Prize, Canada's most prestigious award for young scientists and engineers.

The $10,000 award comes in recognition of Snutch's outstanding research into the function of calcium channels in the human body.

"Receiving the Steacie Prize was not something I ever expected, it was a complete shock," says Snutch. "I'll be holding a party for my lab to celebrate because an award like this is rarely the result of one individual's efforts. The credit goes to my entire team."

Snutch is the seventh UBC researcher to win the prize since its inception in 1964, and the first in the life sciences field.

The prize is awarded annually to a person no older than age 40 by the
E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fund. The prize is named in memory of E.W.R. Steacie, a physical chemist and former president of the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada, who is recognized for his strong support for the development of science in Canada.

"Terry Snutch's research program is generating results that have already had a major impact on his field and hold great promise for the treatment of many serious human ailments," says Bernie Bressler, UBC's vice-president, Research.

Snutch and his research team investigate how calcium gets in and out of the brain's 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons, and triggers electrical and chemical signals en route. Calcium plays a positive role as a messenger between neurons that control skeletal, heart and smooth muscle contraction, hormone secretion and all electrical signaling in the central nervous system. However, too much calcium entering a cell, through what are known as calcium channels, can be toxic.

Snutch's research during the last eight years has led to a number of major breakthroughs. He has identified and cloned five genes encoding the channels that regulate calcium entry into brain cells. Some of these genes are also turned on in the heart. In fact, Snutch believes that there may be as many as a dozen types of calcium channels, controlling different functions in different parts of neurons and different types of cells.

Snutch's research holds promise for the creation of novel drugs to treat cardiovascular disorders including hypertension, angina and certain arrhythmias. Migraine headaches and some forms of epilepsy are other disorders also shown to involve calcium entry into cells.

Processes developed in his lab have enabled scientists to study channels and all their properties outside the brain and to use this information to design and screen for drugs that can either block or excite certain channels by themselves without risk of affecting other channels.

One of the channels that Snutch cloned is blocked by a toxin that a Micronesian cone snail uses to paralyse its prey. The toxin also blocks channels involved in strokes and pain transmission. A drug company in the U.S. has taken this information and is developing a pain reliever reported to be a thousand times more sensitive than morphine.

Since his arrival at UBC in 1989, Snutch has accepted a steady stream of provincial, national and international research awards. These include the: Killam Research Prize (1991); Alfred Sloan Research Fellowship (1991-93); International Research Scholar, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (1991-96); Outstanding Academic Alumni Award, Simon Fraser University (1994); Medical Research Council of Canada Scientist Award (1995-2000); and the 1996 International Albrecht Fleckenstein Award.