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Dr. Michael Hayden is a world-renowned expert on Huntington's, a neurodegenerative disorder.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A B.C. researcher whose dogged pursuit of a treatment and cure for Huntington's disease has ignited hope around the world is being honoured for his efforts with Canada's top medical award.

Michael Hayden, a physician and geneticist who is the world's most cited author on Huntington's disease, has won the 2011 Canada Gairdner Wightman Award for his groundbreaking contributions to medical science.

"This is totally thrilling, and in particular, the award actually becomes even more significant when I think about those who preceded me and the heritage that they left," Dr. Hayden, who is based in Vancouver, said in an interview.

Canada Gairdner Awards are one of the most prestigious medical honours in the world and are renowned for being early predictors of Nobel Prize winners. In the past decade, Gairdner winners have won 19 of the 26 Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine.

Dr. Hayden has made important discoveries about how Huntington's disease develops and created the world's first predictive test for it - the first such test for any genetic disorder.

Although he is best known for his research on the inherited neurodegenerative disorder, it only scratches the surface of Dr. Hayden's list of accomplishments.

He is also working on developing simple tests to identify patients who would suffer serious side effects from certain medications.

In addition, Dr. Hayden has discovered genes associated with some rare conditions, findings that are leading to new levels of understanding about, and possible new treatments for, common conditions including Alzheimer's disease and chronic pain.

"Michael's been a real leader in bringing advances in science to people," said Max Cynader, director of the Brain Research Centre at UBC and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute.

Dr. Hayden, Canada Research Chair in human genetics and molecular medicine at the University of British Columbia, has established an unparalleled reputation in the medical community for identifying genes associated with rare conditions such as congenital insensitivity to pain and Tangier disease, a genetic condition characterized by low levels of good cholesterol in the blood.

By studying people with extremely rare conditions, such as those born without the ability to feel pain, Dr. Hayden has been able to home in on genetic variants unique to those individuals, enabling understanding of how pain sensitivity, and other functions, are regulated.

In fact, hope is building that Dr. Hayden's pain research will soon yield a new drug. By identifying the mutated gene that leads to congenital insensitivity to pain, Dr. Hayden and colleagues have developed a drug that can target that gene to stop pain. If successful, the drug could prove a viable alternative to powerful opioids, which can lead to addiction and serious side effects.

The drug is in human clinical trials, Dr. Hayden said.

Dr. Hayden, who makes a point of getting his work out of the ivory tower, has helped found three biotechnology companies.

"For me, making the discovery is really not sufficient," Dr. Hayden said. "I'm committed to seeing in whatever form it takes… to translate [discoveries]into something of meaning for patients."

Dr. Hayden is also involved in charitable work, particularly in his native South Africa, where he helped establish a youth centre for those affected by HIV and AIDS or at risk of contracting the disease.

Dr. Hayden, who is married and has four grown children, said he is looking forward to the chance to continue to contribute to the community as a Gairdner winner by speaking to young people considering careers in science or medicine.

"Just as I was moved by certain people very early in my career, I have this opportunity and responsibility to talk to young people at critical stages of their lives," he said.

The other Gairdner winners are:

Adrian Bird of the University of Edinburgh; Howard Cedar and Aharon Razin of Hebrew University in Jerusalem: recognized for pioneering work in the field of epigenetics, the study of how genes respond, or are turned on and off, by factors such as environmental influences;

Jules Hoffmann of the University of Strasbourg in France and Shizuo Akira of Osaka University in Japan: recognized for discovering receptors that detect pathogens and spur the immune system to fight infection; and

Robert Black of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore: recognized for determining zinc can play a major role in treating and preventing diarrhea, a significant breakthrough that can save the lives of countless children in low-income countries.

The awards, which will be given at a Toronto gala this fall, come with a $100,000 prize. Winners will also be honoured in their home countries and participate in lectures and symposiums with students and researchers across Canada this fall.