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‘You never know what’s going to give you insight into disease,’ foundation’s chief says

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Guy Rouleau, shown at middle in 2010, is director of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital and one of the recipients of this year's Gairdner Awards. The others are Mina Bissell, top left; Salim and Quarraisha Abdool Karim, middle left; Elaine Fuchs, bottom left; Rolf Kemier, top right; Masatoshi Takeichi, middle right; and Roeland Nusse, bottom right.John Morstad/The Globe and Mail, handouts

A diverse group of eight scientists whose work has offered insight into how cells interact with each other and their environment, the genetic underpinnings of neurological disease and the transmission of the virus that causes AIDS, have been named this year’s winners of the Gairdner Awards — the country’s most prestigious biomedical research prizes.

Coming in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s set of awards highlights the importance of basic science to understanding the fundamental processes of life and how those processes relate to human health around the world.

“When you build up a scientific environment and a scientific community, you have people who are prepared to do whatever it takes [to address a global health crisis]”, said Janet Rossant, president and scientific director of the Toronto-based Gairdner Foundation, which announced the award winners on Tuesday. “You never know what’s going to give you insight into disease,” Dr. Rossant said.

Watch: Guy Rouleau explains the research that won him the Gairdner Wrightman Award.

Among the winners is Guy Rouleau, director of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, who is this year’s recipient of the Gairdner Wightman Award, which recognizes scientific leadership in Canada.

In addition to his work linking various rare genes that occur in the French Canadian population to disorders such as ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), Dr. Rouleau is known for his efforts to make scientific research more accessible.

Starting in 2016, he placed his institute at the forefront of the open science movement by allowing the free flow of data, tools and research results without restrictions related to who will profit from the knowledge.

Reached at his home in Montreal, Dr. Rouleau said the initiative was spurred by a lack of new development in neurological disease, where few treatment options are available for those dealing with brain disorders including Alzheimer’s disease. “We thought that by sharing openly and by breaking down barriers, this would accelerate things,” Dr. Rouleau said.

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A human T-cell, in blue, comes under attack by HIV, in yellow, the virus that causes AIDS.Seth Pincus, Elizabeth Fischer, Austin Athman/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH via AP/The Canadian Press

The husband and wife team of Quarraisha and Salim Abdool Karim at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa were named the joint winners of the John Dirks Gairdner Globe Health award for their work tackling HIV in Africa.

In 1990, the pair described the transmission of the virus that causes AIDS through the African population, which frequently involves the infection of teenage girls by older men. Their work laid the foundations for successful HIV prevention programs focused on women and women’s health.

Previous winners of the global health award include Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., who has lately become a prominent figure for helping to steer the U.S. response to COVID-19 and for repeatedly clarifying or correcting misleading statements by U.S. President Donald Trump.

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Past Gairdner recipient Dr. Anthony Fauci walks past U.S. President Donald Trump at a March 29 news conference at the White House.Al Drago/Reuters/Reuters

The five researchers named as recipients of this year’s Canada Gairdner International Award — a prize that often portends a future Nobel win — have all done groundbreaking work related to some aspect of the field known as cell signalling.

They include:

  • Rolf Kemler, of the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Frieburg, Germany, and Masatoshi Takeichi of the RIKEN Center in Kobe, Japan, for independently showing how cells adhere to one another to form tissues like skin and muscle by using a set of proteins called cadherins that act like molecular glue.
  • Roeland Nusse of Stanford University, Calif., for discovering a set of biochemical pathways known as “Wnt signaling”. Fundamental to all animal cells, they govern cell development and are linked to a range of cancers and other diseases.
  • Mina Bissell of the University of California, Berkeley, for showing how genes can be influenced by the environment outside the cell, known as the extracellular matrix, and how damage to that environment can play a role in the development of breast cancer.
  • Elaine Fuchs of Rockefeller University in New York for discovering how stem cells operate in the skin and their role in inflammation, wound repair and cancer. Her work has proved crucial to a broader understanding of the body’s largest organ.

In previous years, Gairdner award winners have travelled across Canada giving lectures and meeting with students ahead of a fall symposium and award ceremony in Toronto.

Dr. Rossant said the Foundation is still assessing how this year’s activities will proceed in light of COVID-19.

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