Global Research Ranking a Legacy of Founders’ Foresight

The late Michael Smith earned the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry - photo by Martin Dee
The late Michael Smith earned the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry – photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 12 | Dec. 6, 2007

By Hilary Thomson

The last decade has brought a renaissance in research. Federal funding for research has increased dramatically and the establishment of new agencies such as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and the Canada Research Chairs program has had a revolutionary impact on Canadian university research.

In B.C., research support from the province has also increased, through creation of the BC Knowledge Development Fund, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, Genome BC and the Leading Edge Endowment Fund. These new funding sources, together with the revitalization of existing agencies, have allowed UBC to attract and retain the brightest minds and construct research facilities that were once only dreamed about. 

One measure of a new era for research is financial support. Ten years ago, UBC external research funding totalled $138 million annually. I am delighted to report that the yearly total is now more than $400 million. Many accomplishments have relied on research partnerships with hospitals and health research institutes, industry, research institutes and universities in North America and abroad.  

In its 100-year history, the university has produced important new knowledge in all fields of endeavour, and much of that knowledge was built on work done by previous generations of investigators. Many of our outstanding researchers over the last century were students here, mentored by UBC faculty, and who returned on the strength of our research reputation. In turn, they have attracted students and junior researchers.

Our discoveries continue to earn international acclaim, enrich our lives, drive the local economy, and contribute to greater global understanding. Here is a sample of some of the important and inspirational research conducted in the latter part of UBC’s first 100 years.

And this is only the beginning.

Dr. John Hepburn, Vice President Research

Inventors and Innovators

In the early 1980s, UBC chemistry professor David Dolphin and UBC microbiologist Julia Levy started developing a light-activated drug now known as Visudyne ™ — the world’s first treatment for age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness. The world’s most widely used ophthalmic drug ever, it has saved the vision of approximately 500,000 people since being launched in 2000. The product is made by QLT Inc., UBC’s most successful spin-off company. The research has led to about 50 U.S. patents, and royalties to UBC far exceed other licensees.

Engineer and former UBC Vice-President, Research, Indira Samarasekera’s work on improved methods of steel production resulted in technology that is used worldwide to improve quality of product that goes into everything from cables and steel-belted tires to refrigerators. She researched new processes of steel production involving a major emphasis on continuous casting and hot rolling and is credited for inventing mathematical models to predict the mechanical properties of hot rolled steel.

Helen Burt, associate dean, Research and Graduate Studies in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, specializes in ways to get therapeutic agents to target sites within the body. Working with scientists at Vancouver’s Angiotech Pharmaceuticals Inc., she developed a molecular bubble of biodegradable plastic to deliver the yew tree compound, called paclitaxel, to treat illnesses such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis and psoriasis. Burt has also developed a way to use paclitaxel to coat vascular stents,  cylindrical wire devices inserted into blood vessels to correct blockage. The coated stent is Angiotech’s best-known product.

Michael Smith’s Legacy and UBC Bug Busters

UBC chemistry professor, the late Michael Smith, earned the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on programming segments of DNA. The DNA strand that was the focus of his work can be seen in the coloured glass windows of the building named in his honour, the Michael Smith Laboratories, on UBC’s Vancouver campus.

Smith recruited some top young investigators to UBC, including bacterial disease researcher B. Brett Finlay. A professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and of microbiology and immunology, Finlay has received international recognition for his work in identifying how bacteria such as E.coli invade the body; he has developed a cattle vaccine against the infection. Finlay also headed the SARS Accelerated Vaccine Initiative, an international fast-track response to combat the infection. He is the Peter Wall Institute Distinguished Professor, the university’s most prestigious academic honour.

Along with UBC professor Robert Hancock, who is Canada Research Chair in Pathogenomics and Antimicrobials, Finlay and colleagues are investigating how the body’s own immune system can prevent lethal, drug resistant infections. The team received a 2005 grant of US$8.7 million over five years from the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) as part of the Grand Challenges in Global Health (GCGH) initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Hancock also co-leads one of Canada’s largest genomics projects — a $20-million international research alliance that is looking for new ways to treat potentially lethal infectious diseases in humans and livestock through understanding immune responses to infection. This spring, in collaboration with UBC spin-off company Inimex Pharmaceuticals –which he co-founded with Finlay — Hancock and his team found a way to increase innate immunity without triggering harmful inflammation.

Natalie Strynadka, a professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, designs new antibiotics to defeat hospital superbugs. She and her research team have discovered information to help scientists design new classes of drugs to conquer the potentially lethal infections caused by resistant bacteria, an international health concern that accounts for approximately 45,000 deaths per year in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

Also attracted to UBC because of Michael Smith is Terry Snutch, who identified and characterized a class of proteins called calcium channels that are implicated in chronic pain, stroke, epilepsy and cardiovascular disease and other illnesses. Canada Research Chair in Biotechnology and Genomics — Neurobiology, he co-founded UBC spin-off Neuromed Pharmaceuticals which last year struck a deal with pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. valued up to $500 million — the richest collaboration ever in Canada. Snutch is a member of the Michael Smith Laboratories.

UBC’s Gene Scene

Over six days in 2003, Marco Marra and his team at BC Cancer Agency’s Research Centre deciphered the SARS genetic code. Working around the clock they announced on April 11 that they had completed a draft DNA sequence of the virus — the first in the world. Marra says the opportunity to work with Michael Smith influenced his decision to return to Canada from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Marra directs Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre (GSC) at the BC Cancer Agency. Smith was founding director of the GSC.

Medical Genetics Prof. Michael Hayden, Director and Senior Scientist at the Child and Family Research Institute’s Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics, discovered the key gene that controls good cholesterol. Low levels of good cholesterol can lead to heart attack and stroke, and Hayden’s discovery offers new therapeutic approaches. In 2006, Hayden, who is Canada Research Chair in Human Genetics and Molecular Medicine, and colleagues achieved a cure for Huntington disease in mouse models, offering hope that it can be relieved in humans. He has also identified genes for other disorders, including a form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Star Gazers

Physics and astronomy researchers Mark Halpern, Jaymie Matthews and Harvey Richer have made contributions to science that include uncovering the most distant star clusters ever seen; co-leading an international research team that confirmed the existence of the universe’s oldest known and farthest planet; building and launching the Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimetre Telescope (BLAST), a telescope that dangles from a 33-storey balloon that carried it to the edge of space; and building Canada’s first space telescope, the Microvariability & Oscillations of Stars (MOST) telescope — a suitcase-sized instrument dubbed the “Humble” satellite for its diminutive proportions and its relatively small ($10 million) budget.

Data from their projects has allowed the trio to contribute significantly to fundamental questions such as the age of the universe.

Brett Gladman, Canada Research Chair in Planetary Astronomy, was part of an international team of astronomers who discovered three previously unknown moons of Neptune, and in another project, nine previously unknown moons of Jupiter. Paul Hickson is an expert in liquid mirror telescopes — the next generation of super telescopes. He co-constructed the first liquid mirror telescope and installed it in UBC’s Liquid Mirror Observatory.  He is project scientist for the ALPACA telescope — an eight-metre wide-field liquid mirror telescope to be built in Chile. Ingrid Stairs, an expert on rotating neutron stars, or pulsars, was part of an international research team that showed Einstein’s theory of general relativity is correct to within 0.05 per cent. In another international project, she found a new kind of cosmic object — a highly compressed neutron star.

Sounds Fishy

Daniel Pauly, one of the world’s leading fisheries conservation researchers, developed two of the world’s most important fisheries projects: FishBase is a global database of information on more than 28,000 species of fish, and Ecopath is an ecosystem-modelling software that predicts how fish populations might respond to various pressures.

An outspoken critic of current fishing practices that deplete the earth’s fish stocks, Pauly was the only Canadian researcher named to Scientific American magazine’s list of 50 influential people for 2003. In 2005 he made history when he became the first Canadian to be awarded Japan’s International Cosmos Prize, an honour sometimes called the Nobel Prize for Environmentalism.

Green Machine

John Robinson is a professor in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability and project director of the forthcoming Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS). A living laboratory of sustainable technologies and services, CIRS is heralded as the most innovative and high performance building in North America. Robinson is a Lead Author in two working groups of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was a joint recipient (with Al Gore) of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. He also headed the Georgia Basin Futures Project that explored ways of achieving long-term sustainability using a computer-based envisioning tool in game format called QUEST. Players make decisions based on real data, such as transportation and energy choices, and the game displays the environmental, social and economic consequences. Ten Canadian cities have purchased versions of QUEST.

Prof. Bill Rees, of the School of Regional and Community Planning, originated the ecological footprint analysis – a framework that describes the amount of productive land needed to support a given population. Rees has shown that to bring the present world population up to U.S. or Canadian material standards with prevailing technology would require four additional Earth-like planets. Rees’ 1996 book, Our Ecological Footprint, has been translated into eight languages.

Better Outcomes for Kids

Dr. Clyde Hertzman, a UBC professor of Health Care and Epidemiology, directs The Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP), which created a unique atlas to explore how different environments create different developmental outcomes for children. HELP has been designated the World Health Organization’s Knowledge Hub for Early Child Development. The Knowledge Hub wants to raise the profile of early child development globally. Hertzman is Canada Research Chair in Population Health and Human Development.

Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a UBC expert on the social and emotional development of children and adolescents, conducted a 2006 survey of more than 1,200 Greater Vancouver children. It was among the first in Canada to explore the psychological and social world of kids aged 9-12, a period known as middle childhood. She recently reviewed her 2006 findings, looking at differences between children according to vulnerability, as measured by a made-at-UBC tool for assessing school readiness — the Early Development Instrument (ECI). While many factors can cause a kid to become vulnerable to development problems, Schonert-Reichl says household income is a primary factor.

Examining Economies, Communities

Sociology Prof. Ralph Matthews is working with six communities and their adjacent First Nations in coastal B.C. to explore the relationship between social capital and economic development. Using a collaborative model, he is looking at what makes some communities more resilient than others and aims to help shape the social, environmental and economic futures of these communities and build their research capacity.

Economist W. Erwin Diewert is a world expert on economic theory, measurement and policy analysis who has developed new techniques to measure factors such as productivity and inflation. His contributions to economic theory, especially production theory, have been the source of numerous doctoral dissertations all over the world. He is one of UBC’s most cited faculty members.  His work in productivity measurement and dynamics has led to better understanding of patterns and trends in productivity growth, innovation and living standards for statistical agencies, government departments and policy analysts all over the world.

Prof. Emeritus Arthur J. Ray is an historian and historical geographer who specializes in aboriginal relations, the fur-trade, and the adaptive capacities of aboriginal peoples. Ray is a principal figure in treaty discussions and aboriginal land claims and has served as an expert witness. In 2000, he launched the first comprehensive and comparative study of aboriginal rights litigation in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.