The right mix

Baking soda started Prof. Gail Bellward's career

by Hilary Thomson
Staff writer

Picture A box of Cow Brand baking soda started Pharmaceutical Sciences Prof. Gail Bellward on a career that has spanned nearly 40 years and recently earned her Canada's top prize for faculty research, the 1997 Janssen-Ortho award.

Bellward, the daughter of a small-town Saskatchewan pharmacist, says she virtually grew up in a dispensary. At her father's side, she conducted her first experiment at age three, pouring baking soda and distilled water into a beaker while her father added a few drops of hydrochloric acid.

The result was a dazzling display of steam and bubbles, all the more impressive since Bellward assumed from the picture on the box that she was adding powdered cow.

"I was hooked with that experiment," says Bellward, who is also the faculty's associate dean, Research and Graduate Studies. "I grew up knowing I was going into pharmacy."

When she became a researcher, Bellward was the only one in Canada working on drug-metabolizing enzymes -- specifically, a system of enzymes called cytochrome P-450 -- to predict when toxicities or drug interactions will occur. She is still one of only a handful of researchers studying these enzymes.

Drug-metabolizing enzymes make chemicals more water-soluble so the body can excrete them. When production of the enzymes is stimulated or decreased, however, the process may alter significantly making a drug dose that would usually be safe toxic, especially if combined with another drug.

Bellward investigates factors regulating production of these drug-metabolizing enzymes. She has examined this process in relation to therapeutic drugs and environmental toxins.

In a project she describes as the most societally important thing she's done, Bellward investigated the toxic effects of dioxin, a chemical found in pulp mill effluent.

The great blue heron, a large bird near the top of the food chain, provided the model for dioxin's risk to humans.

A colony of herons nesting near Crofton, a mill town on Vancouver Island, was failing to reproduce and scientists suspected an environmental pollutant was the cause. When researchers tested heron eggs from the site, they found that levels of dioxin had increased threefold in a single year.

Bellward and representatives from Environment Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Service, other government agencies, and colleagues in UBC's Faculty of Agriculture Sciences studied how the chemical affected the birds.

Partly as a result of the study, the government drafted stricter regulations concerning pulp mill processing methods. As a result, dioxin levels in the heron eggs dropped by 97 per cent over three years. Bellward calls this outcome "an amazing environmental recovery" that also holds real significance for human health.

She has also studied how the envirotoxin benzopyrene, found in cigarettes as well as wood smoke, and smoke from industrial and domestic incinerators, binds to DNA in cells, resulting in permanent genetic damage and contributing to cancer.

Bellward has also made major contributions to studies of how the enzyme cytochrome P-450 metabolizes compounds such as fatty acids and acetone that build up in the blood of diabetics. The enzyme, working in the liver, can respond quickly to metabolize various toxins. If the body is processing multiple chemicals, however, it may get what amounts to a busy signal from the liver.

This situation can produce negative side effects as toxins accumulate. Drug metabolism in the diabetic state is the subject of Bellward's most-cited paper.

Originally planning to be a community pharmacist, Bellward shifted direction after completing an undergraduate research thesis at UBC. Her investigation focused on how cell components called receptors can combine with a drug to change the body's physiology.

That introduction to research was her first real academic challenge, she says. For the first time she did not know the answers but had to unravel the problem step by step.

In addition to her fascination with the process of research, Bellward is committed to its outcomes.

"The potential payoffs are phenomenal," she says. "We're finding the answers to questions we've been looking at for generations."

She became a permanent UBC faculty member in 1969.

"Prof. Bellward has made an enormous contribution to the faculty," says Pharmaceutical Science's Dean Frank Abbott. "Not only is she a sterling researcher, she has also excelled as a teacher."

When Bellward started her lab, there were few women researchers in pharmacy. She missed having a female mentor and felt she was starting from scratch.

"I didn't have a test tube to my name," she says.

After almost 60 research publications, 84 abstracts and four decades as an investigator, she is clear on what it takes to be a researcher.

"You need a strong psychological make-up," she says. "Science is a process of seeking flaws, of disproving. You need to be tough to withstand continual criticism of your work by both yourself and others."

Her advice for students considering a career in research --

"If you need immediate gratification , forget it! You'll be happier as a clinician."

When asked about the work she is most proud of, Bellward has no answer. She points out that each discovery is part of a series of steps and that no single finding nor any one researcher holds the ultimate answer.

Her own achievements include a 1988 Isaac Walton Killam Senior Fellowship. She has also served as the first woman president of the Pharmacological Society of Canada and the Society of Toxicology of Canada.

The opportunity to make a difference keeps Bellward motivated. Whether teaching, lobbying or conducting research, she says that you just hope something you do will help alleviate pain and suffering.

Bellward's next major project is to co-ordinate a large interdisciplinary group of colleagues in the faculties of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Medicine to create an advanced drug research centre for women and children -- the first of its kind.

"Overall, I do feel that I've made a difference. I feel enormously lucky."