UBC Researcher Gains US$8.7 Million in Gates Funding to Lead Global Health Project

A University of British Columbia research project that will change the way infectious diseases are treated worldwide by using the body’s own immune system to prevent lethal, drug resistant infections, has been selected for a grant offer from the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) of US$8.7 million over five years as part of the Grand Challenges in Global Health (GCGH) initiative.

The UBC project received the most funding of the three Canadian investigations funded in the initiative, which offered a total of 43 grants to scientists in 33 countries. More than 1500 researchers in 75 countries competed for the funding.

The funding is part of a US$450-million pledge toward world health issues made by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S.

The project will develop new medicines to boost the body’s own ability to fight devastating infections — such as malaria, typhoid fever, E. coli and tuberculosis — found in developing countries. Antibiotics have traditionally been used to kill disease-causing bacteria and parasites, however, the incidence of drug resistance is climbing and many economical antibiotics are now obsolete.

UBC Prof. Brett Finlay, an international leader in bacterial disease research, is principal investigator for the project. A professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and of microbiology and immunology, Finlay is the Peter Wall Institute Distinguished Professor, the university’s most prestigious academic honour.

The team also includes Robert Hancock, a UBC professor of microbiology and immunology and Canada Research Chair in Pathogenomics and Antimicrobials. In addition, the UBC team will work with researchers from the University of Oxford in England and Stanford University School of Medicine in the U.S.

Screening methods and test compounds will be provided through collaboration with Inimex Pharmaceuticals Inc., a UBC spin-off company founded by Finlay and Hancock.

Getting new knowledge to affected countries,

through the

Global Access Strategy, will be managed by Barbara Campbell of UBC’s University-Industry Liaison Office.

“I am extremely proud that our team here at UBC is leading a significant project in this landmark effort to reduce disease in the developing world,” says UBC President Martha Piper. “Their selection for this important task is further proof that UBC researchers are respected players on the world stage.”

The research will identify and characterize innate immune responses — the primary defense mechanisms the body uses to fight infection — to bacterial and parasitic infections found in developing countries. Investigators will use the new knowledge to develop medicines to block or treat disease by augmenting innate immune responses.

“We want to harness the power of the human immune system to stop infections before they start,” says Finlay, who works at UBC’s Michael Smith Laboratories. “New drugs will help the body block bacteria and parasites from gaining entry. If they do get in, the drugs will attack the infection.”

Some 350-500 million people in more than 100 countries contract malaria each year and an estimated one million die from the disease annually, according to the World Health Organization. In addition, a strain of E.coli kills one million children per year worldwide and nearly two million people die every year of tuberculosis.

Researchers will conduct studies in Vietnam, Australia, the U.K., the U.S. and Canada and expect to develop and test new, economical drugs within the five-year granting period.

In 2003, an international panel of scientists named 14 Grand Challenges in Global Health from hundreds of ideas submitted from around the world. Finlay’s project responds to a challenge to discover drugs and delivery systems that minimize the likelihood of drug resistant microorganisms.

Other researchers involved in this project include scientists from The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the University of London in the U.K.; The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Australia; France’s Institut Pasteur; and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the U.S.

For more information on GCGH, visit www.gcgh.org.

A brief biography of Brett Finlay is attached.

Dr. Brett Finlay

Dr. B. Brett Finlay is a professor at UBC’s Michael Smith Laboratories, and in the departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Microbiology and Immunology.

He obtained a B.Sc. (Honours) in Biochemistry at the University of Alberta, where he also did his Ph.D. (1986) in Biochemistry. His post-doctoral studies were completed at the department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine, where he studied Salmonella invasion into host cells.

In 1989, he joined UBC as assistant professor in the Biotechnology Laboratory, founded by Nobel Laureate, the late Michael Smith, who recruited Dr. Finlay to the university. Dr. Finlay’s research interests are focused on host-pathogen interactions at the molecular level. His lab team studies several pathogenic bacteria, with Salmonella and pathogenic E. coli interactions with host cells being the primary focus.

A major research finding was his 1997 discovery that E.coli bacteria insert a soluble bacterial protein into the host cell membrane that allows them to adhere to the intestine.

The discovery led to the development of a cattle vaccine to eliminate growth of E. coli in the animal’s intestine and prevent meat contamination. The vaccine is being tested on 75,000 animals across Canada.

Finlay has authored more than 250 publications and his work has been published in first-rank international journals such as Science, Cell, and Nature.

He is well recognized internationally for his work and directs the international SARS Accelerated Vaccine Initiative. He has won several prestigious awards including the 1999 E.W.R. Steacie Prize — Canada’s top award for young scientists and engineers; five Howard Hughes International Research Scholar Awards; and a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Distinguished Investigator award.

Dr. Finlay is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and is the UBC Peter Wall Distinguished Professor — the university’s highest academic honour. He is co-founder of Inimex Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a Vancouver-based company dedicated to developing new medicines that enhance immunity and can be used to treat bacterial diseases, viral infections, and cancer. He has filed 16 patents related to bacterial infectious diseases.

He is a strong supporter of communicating science to the public. He was the first Canadian ever to present the 1999 Howard Hughes Holiday Lectures, which were broadcast to high schools across the U.S. and in Canada, and which won a Telly Award for educational programs for academic use.