Established in 1957, The Canada Gairdner Awards recognize international excellence in fundamental research impacting human health. This year’s eight laureates, announced on March 30, have helped to advance our understanding of some of the world’s most pressing biomedical and global health issues. Through their relentless pursuit of scientific knowledge and commitment to excellence, these laureates have improved the lives of countless individuals around the world. The Canada Gairdner Awards serve as a reminder of the immense impact that research can have on human health. Here’s how this year’s laureates have made an impact.

Uncovering simple solutions to fight maternal mortality

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José Belizán, MD, PhD., Senior Scientist, Department of Research in Maternal and Child Health, Institute for Clinical Effectiveness and Health Policy (IECS) Argentina; Superior Researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina (CONICET); Researcher, Bone Biology Laboratory, School of Medicine, University of Rosario, Argentina

José Belizán is the 2023 recipient of the John Dirks Canada Gairdner Global Health Award, which honors researchers who demonstrate extraordinary leadership paired with exceptional science.

In 1976, Belizán was forced to flee the newly-installed military dictatorship of his home country of Argentina due to his humanitarian health work. That led him to a position at the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama in Guatemala, where he noticed an unusually low incidence of hypertensive disorders of pregnancy (HDP). He noted that such complications, which were prevalent and dangerous elsewhere, seemed rarest of all among women living in extreme poverty. Further investigation revealed that while their diets were generally low in nutrients, they were extremely high in calcium—a result of the traditional Mayan method of preparing maize for making tortillas, wherein the grain soaks in alkaline water overnight to make it easier to grind. During this process, called nixtamalization, the corn absorbs the calcium of the substance it soaks in.

Belizán and his colleagues proposed that high calcium intake could explain the low frequency of HDPs, which they eventually demonstrated with lab and clinical studies. Given that an estimated three billion people lack access to adequate calcium intake worldwide, Belizán’s findings have no doubt saved countless lives by highlighting the importance of nutritional supplements during pregnancy. Belizán’s lab has now proposed—and is studying, together with nutritionist Gabriela Cormick and her team—the fortification of tap water and foods such as flour with calcium.

This is just one of the many areas in which Belizán has impacted maternal health for the better. Belizán was also the first to document, as well as design, test, and implement landmark interventions addressing the issue of unnecessary increased use of cesarean sections. His research has also led to a decrease in unnecessary routine episiotomy worldwide, including in Canada and the US.

Belizán hopes his Gairdner Award can help draw global attention to the need for improved maternal care, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

“The greatest achievement, the greatest desire of health researchers is to achieve a finding that is implemented in the population and that results in greater survival and quality of life for people,” Belizán says. “Especially when this achievement can reduce existing inequalities in survival and quality of life.

Using artificial intelligence to accelerate scientific discovery

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Demis Hassabis, CBE FRS FREng FRSA, Founder & CEO, DeepMind; Founder & CEO, Isomorphic Labs

John Jumper, PhD, MPhil, AlphaFold Lead and Senior Staff Research Scientist, DeepMind

Demis Hassabis and John Jumper have received the 2023 Canada Gairdner International Award for the development of AlphaFold, which has been heralded as an AI-based solution to the 50-year grand challenge of protein structure prediction. The Canada Gairdner International Award honors outstanding biomedical scientists who have made original contributions to medicine resulting in an increased understanding of human biology and disease.

Proteins, which are essential for practically all functions of life on Earth, are made up of complex chains of amino acids. The precise 3D shapes those chains twist and fold into have a huge impact on how the resulting protein will function. The challenge of determining which shape a given protein folds into, dubbed the “protein-folding problem,” stood as a grand challenge in Biology for decades. Together with the rest of the team at the artificial intelligence (AI) research lab DeepMind, Hassabis, and Jumper developed a system called AlphaFold2 that can predict protein structures to atomic accuracy in mere minutes.

In 2020, the organizers of the biennial Critical Assessment of Protein Structure Prediction (CASP) officially recognized AlphaFold2 as a solution to the 50-year grand challenge of protein structure prediction. AlphaFold2 has been used to produce structure predictions for more than 200 million proteins—nearly every protein known to science—which DeepMind has made freely available via the AlphaFold Protein Structure Database. The database acts like a Google search for protein structures, providing researchers with instant access to predicted models for whatever proteins they’re studying.

“I’ve been working on AI for my entire career, even at university, and I tend to note down scientific problems I think could be amenable to the types of algorithms we build,” recalls Hassabis. “I first heard about the protein folding problem while I was doing my undergrad at Cambridge, from a friend who was obsessed with the problem, and still works in the field. He’d tell me if we could just crack protein folding, it would be transformational for biology.”

In 2010 Hassabis founded DeepMind, which saw its first breakthrough with AlphaGo—the first computer program to defeat a human in Go, an abstract strategy board game that dates back to ancient China—in 2015. He then decided to try to tackle the protein-folding problem.

“I thought we might, at last, have the right algorithmic ideas to finally make progress with it,” he says.

He recruited Jumper, who had developed machine learning methods to simulate protein dynamics while receiving his PhD in Chemistry from the University of Chicago, in 2017. Jumper became the project’s research lead in 2018, redesigning the system’s architecture into what would become AlphaFold2.

Within 18 months of its launch, more than 1 million researchers in 190 countries have accessed the AlphaFold database to assist with a wide range of experiments, from engineering plastic-eating enzymes that can help tackle plastic pollution, to improving crop sustainability in the face of climate change.

“For context, determining the structure of a single protein can take a researcher the entire length of their PhD, and we have produced 200 million predicted structures in less than a year,” Jumper says. “Producing that many structures experimentally would have taken millions of years of work with current experimental technology. It’s so humbling to have been involved in something with such potential for impact.”

“Now you can look up a 3D structure of a protein almost as easily as doing a keyword Google search,” Hassabis says. “I like to say it is science at digital speed.”

Both say they’re honored and delighted to receive recognition from Gairdner and see it as a win for the entire team at DeepMind.

“It is really incredible to see the work of our team recognized by such a major award, and to me, it’s a nod to AlphaFold as a leap towards building a full understanding of core components of a cell,” Jumper says. “We’ve been so excited by the difference AlphaFold has made for experimental biologists in aiding their experimentation. The extent to which it’s been picked up by the community has been beyond our expectations, and we hope this continues.”

“I’m hugely honored to receive the Gairdner Award alongside John and on behalf of our amazing team at DeepMind,” Hassabis says, “and I’m excited that it will bring more attention to the incredible potential of artificial intelligence to accelerate scientific discovery and help solve some of humanity’s greatest challenges.”

Championing culturally and contextually appropriate mental health services for Indigenous communities

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Christopher Mushquash, Ph.D., C.Psych., Professor, Department of Psychology, Lakehead University; Psychologist, Dilico Anishinabek Family Care; Vice President Research, Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre; Chief Scientist, Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute

Christopher Mushquash is one of two recipients of 2023’s Canada Gairdner Momentum Award, which recognizes mid-career researchers who have produced exceptional scientific research contributions with continued potential for impact on human health.

Mushquash’s clinical practice has always been informed by his own cultural background. Mushquash—who is Anishinawbe (Ojibway), and a member of Pawgwasheeng (Pays Plat First Nation)—focuses on Indigenous mental health and substance use through evidence-based practices that align with First Nations values.

“I wanted to develop skills that might enable me to be helpful to my community,” Mushquash says.

Mushquash and his team have made great strides in providing empirical evidence for the connection between childhood and intergenerational trauma and adult substance use difficulties. His lab has also studied parenting, interventions for unhoused First Nation youth, and more. In all of his research, he says, he aims to center the needs and culture of the people he’s studying.

Mushquash pursues Indigenous mental health and addiction research from four interconnected directions with the following goals: identify culturally—and contextually—appropriate targets of intervention; develop methods for measuring community outcomes; develop and test intervention approaches that bring together culture-based knowledge with scientific methods; and, disseminate knowledge broadly in Indigenous and academic communities, and among clinicians, policy-, and decision-makers. His work has already impacted funding policies and changed standard practices of mental health care for Indigenous communities. Mushquash says his next major area of focus will be helping to develop integrated services for Indigenous youth that prioritize their needs and wellness.

“This recognition is a tremendous honor,” Mushquash says. “However, more important to me is that this award—and the opportunities that the Gairdner Foundation provides laureates to engage with a broad range of audiences—will ensure that there is the opportunity for additional dialogue on Indigenous community-based research in mental health and addiction.”

“It is incumbent upon mental health and addiction systems and services to improve outcomes for Indigenous people,” he says.

Advancing our understanding of brain tumors to transform clinical care

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Gelareh Zadeh, MD, PhD, FRCS(C), FAANS, Professor and Neurosurgery Division Chair, Dan Family Chair in Neurosurgery, Wilkins Family Chair in Brain Tumor Research, Department of Surgery, Temerty Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto; Head, Division of Neurosurgery, Toronto Western Hospital, Sprott Department of Surgery, University Health Network; Co-Director, Krembil Brain Institute, University Health Network; Senior Scientist, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, University Health Network 

Gelareh Zadeh is one of two recipients of 2023’s Canada Gairdner Momentum Award, which recognizes mid-career researchers who have produced exceptional scientific research contributions with continued potential for impact on human health.

While training to become a neurosurgeon, Zadeh decided to also pursue a PhD in the medical sciences. “I wanted to understand a different language, which pursues hypothesis-driven research to really make a difference,” she says. “You can of course leave a mark on your field in multiple ways, like education and day-to-day clinical practice, but I wanted to understand the world of molecular biology.”

Today, Zadeh’s research focuses on advancing our understanding of brain tumors through genomic analysis. Her work on meningiomas—the most common type of brain tumors, which have limited treatment options—has identified four molecular groups that can reveal insights into tumor behavior.

Zadeh’s team has also made groundbreaking findings on rare central nervous system growths called neuronal tumors. Neuronal tumors usually begin as benign growths, but they can convert to malignant growths for reasons scientists don’t yet understand. Zadeh’s work has demonstrated that this conversion can take place via two very distinct molecular pathways.

“What’s really exciting is that there are already therapeutics designed to work against these two pathways that were developed for treating other cancers,” Zadeh says.

Zadeh hopes her work can be part of a much-needed paradigm shift in the field, where effective treatments are scant and slow to appear.

“If you look at the field of neuro-oncology, ultimately, we have not had a successful clinical trial in the last two decades that has made a major impact on a person’s outcome,” she says. “I think that paradigm shift has to come from designing clinical trials based on data and molecular information about the biology of the tumor. We need some outside-of-the-box thinking to develop more nimble strategies.”

From Zadeh’s perspective, her award—which she says took her quite by surprise—is a great way to help encourage those changes.

“The Gairdner name carries so much weight,” she says. “It really provides that recognition, the validity, the confirmation that I am, perhaps, on the right track for research. But it also provides recognition for the model of surgeon-scientists and the fact that you can do this with a wide range of backgrounds. I think that the recognition that comes with the award will hopefully have an impact that goes beyond just me.”

Cracking the code of bacterial communications

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Michael R. Silverman, PhD, Emeritus Investigator, The Agouron Institute; Emeritus Adjunct Professor, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Bonnie L. Bassler, PhD, Squibb Professor and Chair, Department of Molecular Biology, Princeton University; Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

E Peter Greenberg, PhD, Eugene and Martha Nester Endowed Professor of Microbiology, Department of Microbiology and Molecular & Cellular Biology Program, University of Washington School of Medicine

For their combined body of work, Bonnie L. Bassler, Everett Peter Greenberg, and Michael R. Silverman have each been awarded a 2023 Canada Gairdner International Award, which honors outstanding biomedical scientists who have made original contributions to medicine resulting in an increased understanding of human biology and disease.

Bassler, Greenberg, and Silverman were each instrumental in the genesis of an unexpected new field of microbiology: the study of “quorum sensing,” or the means by which bacteria communicate with one another. These researchers have both independently and collaboratively worked to revolutionize the way we think about bacteria, showing that microbes can coordinate with one another to accomplish more than any one bacterium could alone. By overturning the paradigm that microbes only act independently of each other, quorum sensing has allowed new insights into bacterial diseases and the microbiome and its influence on human health.

The first hints of bacterial coordination came out of marine biology research in the 1970s when J. Woodland Hastings and his student Ken Nealson discovered that the marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri produced bioluminescence only when the cells reached a particular population density. That evidence of chemical signaling between bacterial cells went virtually unnoticed until the ‘80s when Silverman and his graduate student JoAnne Engebrecht harnessed the new recombinant DNA technologies to clone and express the genes and proteins involved in the sensory control of bioluminescence. Silverman’s studies revealed the basic regulatory mechanisms controlling collective luminescence and, more broadly, provided the impetus for the discovery of thousands of related systems that underlie group behaviors in diverse bacteria.

Greenberg, who had studied under Hastings and, in 1978, founded his own lab to explore cell communication, says Silverman’s findings provided just what his team had been looking for. “We were off to the races,” he says. He worked to further characterize the genes involved and served as senior author on a 1994 paper that coined the term quorum sensing. He not only showed that this communication existed in other types of bacteria, but he also discovered nearly all major steps in its mechanism.

Bassler—first as a postdoc in Silverman’s lab, and then as the head of her own research group—demonstrated that chemical communication is universal among bacteria, that many different communication molecules are involved, which enable bacteria to distinguish self from others and friend from foe, and in fact, chemical communication transcends the bacterial kingdom boundary. She showed that viruses and higher organisms, including human hosts, participate in these chemical conversations as well. Human gut cells, for example, use quorum sensing to communicate with the bacteria that make up the gut microbiome. Communication enables the microbiome to defend the body against invading pathogens, thereby reducing the severity of bacterial diseases. Bassler also discovered that viruses that infect bacteria can eavesdrop on quorum-sensing signals, which allows them to kill their bacterial hosts when cell density is high—a strategy that maximizes viral transmission to other cells.

“We believe that continuing to study bacterial quorum sensing will lead to wholly new ways to combat infectious diseases,” Bassler says. “We especially want to thwart antibiotic-resistant infections. Because the anti-quorum-sensing compounds my team has invented target behavior, not growth, our hope is that our therapies will be much less vulnerable to the development of resistance compared to traditional antibiotics.”

Silverman, Bassler, and Greenberg all express surprise and delight at the news of their recognition by Gairdner.

“I am almost 80 years old, and I have been retired from lab work for many years, so it is quite jarring to get such unexpected praise,” Silverman says.

Greenberg adds that, while he doesn’t tend to pay much attention to prizes, he knows the prestigious Gairdner banner represents the validation of the burgeoning field of quorum sensing—and will hopefully remind up-and-coming scholars that taking risks can pay off.

“This could have turned out to be a whole lot of nothing,” he says of the early work on bacterial communication. “It speaks to the importance of having an open mind and setting to work on something that just seems really interesting. The Gairdner will bring more attention to the field in general, which will recruit more bright young minds to the issues at hand.”

That inspiration could be the key to unlocking insights we haven’t even imagined yet.

“We have created a new field of research, with hundreds of researchers worldwide now working on quorum sensing,” he says. “And all this since the mid-80s, when there were just two labs working on this. I am amazed at how the field has grown. In all honesty, what excites me about the next decade, after which I will be 84, is to see what all the bright young scientists working in the field discover. You might say that the field now has achieved a quorum, and discoveries will come in left and right.”