UBC researcher wins top Canadian research prize

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

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 enroute. Calcium plays an important
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 so-called calcium channels, can be toxic.

The prize is awarded annually to a person of up to age 40 by the
E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fund, a private foundation dedicated to
the advancement of science and engineering in Canada. It 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,” said Bernie Bressler,
UBC’s vice-president, Research.

Snutch’s research during the last eight years has led to a number
of major breakthroughs. He has identified and cloned five genes
encoding channels that regulate calcium entry into brain cells.
Some of these genes are also turned on in the heart.

Snutch’s research holds promise for the creation of novel drugs
to treat cardiovascular disorders including hyertension, 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 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