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

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.