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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 award.

"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 antibiotic drugs. 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 antibiotics.

"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 intestine.

"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 is stopped.

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 cells.

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.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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