Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider made international headlines earlier this month when they won the Nobel Prize in medicine with colleague Jack Szostak.
But many may not realize that more than a decade ago, Drs. Blackburn and Greider received another prestigious award for the same work involving chromosomes that would lead to the Nobel - the Canada Gairdner Award, one of the world's highest honours for achievement in medicine.
On Oct. 29, Dr. Blackburn, who is also a member of the Gairdner Medical Advisory Board, will be in Toronto to watch as seven researchers from around the world accept five Gairdners for achievements ranging from breakthroughs in stem cell research to pioneering the use of evidence to prove the effectiveness of medical treatments and procedures.
"I'm delighted to be part of it," Dr. Blackburn, who is based at the University of California at San Francisco, said in a telephone interview.
"These awards do celebrate people who do wonderful research, so you just love to see that being honoured and recognized."
Drs. Blackburn and Greider are not the only Gairdner laureates who went on to Nobel fame. In fact, 76, or about a quarter, of nearly 300 Gairdner honourees later went on to receive a Nobel prize, said John Dirks, president and scientific director of the Toronto-based Gairdner Foundation.
The knack for early recognition of groundbreaking scientific research has helped earn the Gairdners, established in the 1950s by Ontario stockbroker James Arthur Gairdner, a solid reputation among the medical community. But among the general public, the awards hold a much lower profile, something Dr. Dirks is now intent on changing.
"I think we wish we were better known in Canada," Dr. Dirks said. "What I'd like to do … before I leave [the position of scientific director]is to do everything possible to increase the profile more … I think it's good for Canadian science."
He's not kidding, either. The Gairdner Foundation has planned the biggest celebration in its history to mark the this year's 50th anniversary of the awards, which have been renamed the Canada Gairdner International Awards. Throughout the week, lectures, panels and a variety of other events have been taking place in Toronto and Ottawa. About 60 former Gairdner winners - 22 of them Nobel laureates - are taking part in the celebrations.
They will be present to witness the inaugural presentation of a new category of award - the Canada Gairdner Global Health Award - given to help raise the profile of advancements in developing economies. Nubia Muñoz, originally from Colombia, will pick up this year's award after discovering the two strains of human papilloma virus that are the most common causes of cervical cancer, a development that led directly to the breakthrough vaccine protecting against HPV.
This is also the first year that recipients will be getting a much larger cash award - $100,000 rather than the previous $30,000. The increase was made possible by a $20-million donation by the federal government last year, Dr. Dirks said.
A major reason for raising public awareness of the Gairdners is to inspire young people to enter science and medicine and build on the breakthroughs happening today. "The goal is to inspire young people into science for the future," Dr. Dirks said. "There are many good ways of interesting kids and young people in science and ours is to inspire them with a successful scientist."
One of this year's award recipients had already made important contributions to the advancement of medical research by his early 30s. Dave Sackett, professor emeritus of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics at McMaster University, now 75, is being honoured with the Gairdner Wightman Award for his pioneering efforts in developing and shaping the application of evidence-based medicine into everyday practice.
Dr. Sackett actually created the term "clinical epidemiology," which emphasizes the crucial need for clinical trials and other evidence-gathering measures to determine the effectiveness of certain treatments, medications and procedures.
When it first began to emerge, those working in the field now known as clinical epidemiology were considered "rebels," Dr. Sackett said, because they challenged the idea of doing things a certain way just because that was how it was done.
It was that kind of thinking that helped bloodletting - withdrawing major amounts of blood from a patient to improve or cure various health problems - remain in practice for hundreds of years, until it was proven to be harmful, Dr. Sackett said.
The advent of clinical epidemiology has led to important life-saving discoveries in the few decades it has been in practice. For instance, Dr. Sackett helped carry out the first trial that found that Aspirin can help prevent stroke and death among those identified as at risk of having a stroke. Later work would show that Aspirin could also reduce heart attack and death among people with a serious heart condition.
Now, the use of clinical trials and evidence-based medicine has become so ingrained that it's hard for many to imagine what the state of medicine used to look like, he said.
"It is not infrequent when folks first encounter this to say 'Do you mean to say that before then, medicine wasn't evidence-based?'"
But Dr. Sackett said he only deserves part of the credit and that he normally turns down awards and honorary degrees because he doesn't want his work to overshadow that of others. In this case, he said he'll accept the Gairdner Award on behalf of hundreds of those who have helped advance the field - some of whom will be present tonight when he finally picks up the honour.