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gairdner awards

Recipient of the 2012 Canada Gairdner Award, Dr. Lorne Babiuk is pictured in the labs at the Katz Group Centre for Pharmacy and Health Research.Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail

A Canadian researcher who has dedicated his career to studying infectious diseases in animals and humans and changed the face of vaccine research is being honoured with Canada's top medical prize.

Lorne Babiuk, a Canadian specialist in immunology, virology and vaccinology and vice-president of research at the University of Alberta, is the recipient of the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award, given annually to a Canadian who has shown outstanding leadership in medicine and medical science.

Other top scientists from around the world, including a team that cracked the code of how the human body clock works and an expert whose work in support of vaccines and malaria bed nets has helped reduce childhood deaths, are also recipients of the 2012 Canada Gairdner Awards. The awards are given annually to researchers who have made a significant impact in their field. One of the world's most prestigious medical honours, the Gairdners have an impressive record of choosing recipients who later win the Nobel Prize.

Dr. Babiuk said one of the main forces driving his work is that disease control and prevention can have a significant impact on society.

"If you look at how devastating infectious diseases are, they've actually shaped societies throughout history," Dr. Babiuk said in an interview. "I could give example after example of how infectious diseases have been controlled by vaccination and if they weren't controlled, it [would have had]huge economic losses, huge morbidity, huge mortality."

Dr. Babiuk demonstrated his commitment to improving vaccine research earlier in his career when he helped found and direct the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan. On his watch, VIDO grew from a small network into a world leader in research related to areas such as immunology and virology.

Dr. Babiuk was one of a handful of researchers tapped to work on developing a SARS vaccine soon after the outbreak of the illness in 2003.

"I think, without question, Lorne Babiuk has been a leader in studying infections and vaccines to infectious diseases," said Ken Rosenthal, head of the viral vaccines division of the department of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University.

One of Dr. Babiuk's crowning achievements came in 2005, when he became one of three Canadian researchers to secure a prestigious Bill and Melinda Gates Grand Challenge in Global Health grant to develop an improved whooping cough vaccine. Children must receive five doses of vaccine to be fully protected, which often doesn't happen in developing countries, where needle shortages and reuse are serious concerns. Dr. Babiuk is using the grant to work on developing a single-dose vaccine that can be delivered up the nose instead of by a needle.

Other winners of the Canada Gairdner Awards include:

Canada Gairdner International Awards

Jeffrey Hall, professor emeritus of biology at Brandeis University; Michael Rosbash, department of biology, Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Brandeis University; and Michael Young, laboratory of genetics at the Rockefeller University, for the discovery of how the circadian clock regulates human bodies throughout the day.

Thomas Jessell, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Kavli Institute for Brain Science, Columbia University Medical Center, for determining how sensory neurons communicate with motor neurons in the central nervous system.

Jeffrey Ravetch, Theresa and Eugene Lang professor and head of the Leonard Wagner Laboratory of Molecular Genetics and Immunology at the Rockefeller University, for showing the mechanism by which immune system can harm the body.

Canada Gairdner Global Health Award

Brian Greenwood, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, for work that has shown vaccines and insecticide-treated bed nets can reduce childhood deaths in developing countries.