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the ladder

Dr. Pere Santamaria in his lab at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta, October 23, 2017.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Spanish-born Pere Santamaria, 57, is professor, immunology and infectious diseases, in the University of Calgary's microbiology department, and chief scientific officer with Parvus Therapeutics Inc. He's developed an engineered nanoparticle that changes the way T regulatory cells operate and potentially halt the autoimmune response.

My parents were factory workers who worked for Pirelli Tire in a small town outside Barcelona.

When 15, I became sick. My parents were poor and didn't know what to do. I will never forget the fear in their eyes. I spent half a year in the hospital on high-dose corticosteroids and was finally diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disease.

I became a doctor and did a residency in immunology and a PhD in Barcelona. I worked by myself in a lab on artherosclerosis. It was not a very good PhD if I compare it with what my students do now.

I idealized the world of an investigator. You saw a man landing the moon and all these medical discoveries on TV. I thought the United States was the research mecca.

I went to the University of Minnesota as a post doc and worked for a clinician – not a PhD – so I wasn't told what experiments to do. I published. I had a few patents but became frustrated and realized we knew nothing about Type 1 diabetes (an autoimmune disease).

In 1992, I was hired at the University of Calgary. They said: "To come here you have to have funding from the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research. Oh, for sure, you'll get it." We drove across the country. I called my contact from a pay phone at Market Mall and said, "I'm here. I can start tomorrow." He said, "Sorry Pere, they [the AHFMR] turned you down." My wife was crying, my baby was crying. It was the worst day of my life.

The U of C gave me salary support for two years but said that after two years if I didn't get the grant, I'd be gone. I had no lab. I had no money to buy equipment. Here I was alone again. So I went to my department and [asked for] $10,000.

I developed a mouse with a simplified genetic immune system to study diabetes. That mouse was the best thing I ever did. All the good things in my career were linked to that mouse. I got a Canadian Diabetes Association scholarship that paid my salary.

In 2000, we published in Nature, the best thing you can do as a researcher. But it wasn't a game-changing discovery. It didn't cure anything. Then a radiologist colleague read my paper and wanted to use nanoparticles to visualize diabetes. We started seeing really strange things that made no sense whatsoever. The nanoparticles were having a therapeutic effect. I had potentially an important discovery but very little data.

I get a physical feeling when I'm on the right track … it's like my back brain is overtaking my front brain.

I went to the university and said: "I want to file a patent and build a company around this"… because if you license tech to a company they won't have the stamina or the patience to develop it further. Parvus was started in 2004 and incorporated in 2009.

[The journal] Immunity agreed to publish the research but I had to answer questions within 24 hours including: Explain why no one discovered this before? I said: "A discovery is called a discovery because no one has seen it before. Otherwise why would I send this paper to you?"

We secured a partnership with Novartis, which was a big break for us. They will do the clinical trials (for type 1 Diabetes). Our discovery stands to change medicine altogether in a radical way, and displace current drugs.

There is a possibility we may fail because that's part of the game. By then, this will mean we learned something more about the immune system.

I get many, many, many e-mails from people from all over the world. I can't write to them because I would spend all my day writing. But I am sympathetic. Autoimmune diseases are chronic and the treatments are tough. I've lived it.

My own health is stable. I have had Graves' Disease and had my thyroid irradiated. I've had arthritis that went away after a year.

Looking back, the things that make me a good scientist are the failures, not the successes. There were days when I thought: Maybe they're right, maybe I'm a loser, not working on a fashionable theme.

I enjoy describing the setbacks. Being successful was not my goal. I was curious, like a kid, nothing more than that.

As told to Janice Paskey. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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