UBC Reports | Vol. 46 | No. 15 | October 05, 2000
Biologists earn top U.S. awards
Innovative research zeros in on deadly diseases
by Hilary Thomson staff writer
Major epidemics like bubonic plague may be wiped out, but have we really
won the war on deadly bacterial diseases?
Brett Finlay and Natalie Strynadka don't think so.
The two UBC molecular biologists were recently granted prestigious
Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) International Research Scholar
awards for their work in the area of infectious and parasitic diseases.
"This funding gives us significant freedom and flexibility to follow exciting
leads in our research," says Finlay, a professor of Biotechnology and a
previous recipient of the HHMI International Research Scholar
"It also allows us to hire outstanding trainees on short notice while they
apply for funding at traditional agencies."
The awards, which total $15 million US, were given to 45 scientists in
20 countries outside the United States to develop new approaches to overcome
malaria, tuberculosis and other infectious and parasitic diseases.
Both Finlay and Strynadka will receive $450,000 US over five years. They
have been selected for the awards on the basis of their accomplishments,
potential and research plans.
Strynadka is an assistant professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology who
investigates the mechanisms of antibiotic resistance and the design of new
Using three-dimensional computer modelling and other techniques, Strynadka
designs inhibitors which interact with and disable essential proteins within
the bacterial membrane. The knowledge could lead to new classes of
"This award allows me to undertake more challenging research that
characterizes the molecular structures of bacterial membrane proteins as
potential new targets for antibiotics," says Strynadka, a faculty member
since 1997 and an associate member in UBC's Biotechnology Laboratory
where Finlay also does his research.
Finlay looks at the mechanism of bacterial diseases such as salmonella and
dysentery and E. coli which results from eating undercooked ground beef
products or drinking unpasteurized juice and milk.
Finlay and his research team discovered that E. coli bacteria insert a soluble
bacterial protein into the host cell membrane that allows them to adhere to the
"We want to block the bacterium's ability to operate in the body," says Finlay,
who hopes to alter or mutate the protein molecule so that the infection process
Infectious diseases are the third leading cause of death in Canada and the
leading cause of death worldwide, adds Finlay, who is also a professor of
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Microbiology and Immunology.
Additional collaboration between the two researchers has recently determined
the three-dimensional structures of the surface proteins that allow the E. coli
bacterium to bind to the receptor on host cells. This information may
contribute to the development of drugs designed to block bacteria adhering to
Bacterial resistance to standard antibiotic therapies is a growing
health concern around the globe, Strynadka says, and doctors have identified
certain infections that are essentially untreatable.
The HHMI international program, launched in 1991, supports international
research scholars who have contributed significantly to the understanding of
basic biological processes or disease mechanisms and who are still in the early
stages of their careers.