2016 Canada Gairdner Awards Honour CRISPR-Cas Researchers and HIV/AIDS Leaders

TORONTO, March 23, 2016 /CNW/ - The Gairdner Foundation is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 Canada Gairdner Awards, recognizing some of the most significant medical discoveries from around the world. This year the awards center on two defining themes including the revolutionary Clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) technique for gene editing and for work in the HIV/AIDS field within Canada and internationally.

Among the world's most esteemed medical research prizes, the awards distinguish Canada as a leader in science and provide a $100,000 (CDN) prize to each scientist which they can spend as they wish. The Canada Gairdner Awards promote a stronger culture of research and innovation across the country, inspiring the next generation of researchers with the programs that bring current and past laureates to Canada to speak at 22 universities.

The selections for the Canada Gairdner International Awards, recognizing five individuals from various fields for seminal discoveries or contributions to biomedical science, are below. This year, the Gairdner Foundation has given its Canada Gairdner International Awards to leaders from the CRISPR-Cas field breaking it into two awards for: the adaptive immunity discovery and the development of CRISPR-Cas as a usable genome editing tool. There are a number of outstanding scientists who have made a significant impact on the CRISPR field and the Gairdner Foundation's adjudication committees have chosen to recognize five of those leaders by dedicating all five of our 2016 Canada Gairdner International Awards to the following scientists.

The first two Canada Gairdner International Awards are given to two researchers who are being awarded "for establishing and characterizing CRISPR-Cas bacterial immune defense system"

  • Dr. Rodolphe Barrangou, Associate Professor, Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences; Todd R. Klaenhammer Distinguished Scholar in Probiotics Research
    North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA

  • Dr. Philippe Horvath, Senior Scientist, DuPont, Dangé-Saint-Romain, France

    The work:
    Dr. Barrangou and Dr. Horvath's research focused on understanding the genetic basis for health-promoting and technological properties of beneficial bacteria used in food fermentations. Along with colleagues, they established that CRISPR-Cas systems provide adaptive immunity against viruses in bacteria where it recognizes foreign DNA and uses a special molecular scalpel to target and destroy it. They also showed that CRISPR arrays capture viral DNA for natural vaccination against bacteriophages; and demonstrated that cas genes are implicated in sequence-specific targeting and cleavage of DNA.

    The impact:
    Their discovery established CRISPR-Cas as the adaptive immune system of bacteria and has made dramatic impact on the science community, setting the stage for a new research area. This inspired others to investigate CRISPR further. The key advantages of CRISPR over other gene-editing systems are its ability to be quick, precise, efficient and relatively inexpensive. And, as the scientific community has shown over the past few years it is transferable to many types of living organisms. The list of possible applications includes: genome editing, antibacterial and antimicrobial production, food safety, food production and plant breeding.

The next three Canada Gairdner International Awards are being awarded "for development of CRISPR-CAS as a genome editing tool for eukaryotic cells." The three laureates are as follows:

  • Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier, Scientific member of the Max Planck Society, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Berlin, Germany; Professor, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden

  • Dr. Jennifer Doudna, Li Ka Shing Chancellor's Chair in Biomedical and Health Sciences; Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology and Professor of Chemistry at UC Berkeley; Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Berkley, California, USA

    The work: In 2012 Dr. Charpentier and Dr. Doudna published the description of a revolutionary new genome editing technology that uses an engineered single-guide RNA together with the DNA-cleaving enzyme Cas9 to readily manipulate the genomic DNA of individual cells. The CRISPR-Cas9 technology has given biologists the equivalent of a molecular surgery kit for routinely disabling, activating or altering genes with high efficiency and precision. Their collective work has led to the breakthrough discovery of DNA cleavage by Cas9, a dual RNA-guided enzyme whose ability to cut double-stranded DNA can be programmed by changing the guide RNA sequence. Recognizing that such an activity could be employed as a molecular tool for precision genome engineering in various kinds of cells, their teams redesigned the natural dual-RNA guide as a single-guide RNA (sgRNA), creating an easy-to-use two component system. 

    The impact: This technology is transforming the fields of molecular genetics, genomics, agriculture and environmental biology. RNA-guided Cas9 complexes are effective genome engineering agents in animals, plants, fungi and bacteria. The CRISPR-Cas9 technology is being used in thousands of laboratories around the world to advance biological research by engineering cells and organisms in precise ways.

  • Dr. Feng Zhang, Core Member, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Investigator, McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; W. M. Keck Career Development Professor in Biomedical Engineering, Departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and of Biological Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA; Robertson Investigator, New York Stem Cell Foundation

    The work: Dr. Zhang and his team pioneered the development of the microbial CRISPR-Cas system as a genome editing tools for function in eukaryotic cells. They demonstrated that Cas9 can be used to make modifications at multiple sites in the genome in both human and mouse cells, and that the cuts made by Cas9 can be repaired through the incorporation of a new stretch of DNA. Following this initial work, Dr. Zhang and colleagues developed a number of applications for studying biology and disease based on the CRISPR-Cas technology and discovered additional Cas enzymes with unique properties that further expand the genome editing toolbox.

    Impact: These CRISPR-Cas genome editing tools are significantly easier and cheaper to use than previous approaches for gene editing, and they are being used by tens of thousands of scientists around the world to accelerate their research. Ultimately, CRISPR-Cas technologies may prove to be a powerful therapeutic for treating human diseases by editing out harmful mutations.

The John Dirks Canada Gairdner Global Health Award recognizes an individual who is responsible for a scientific advancement that has made a significant impact on health in the developing world. The Gairdner Foundation Board of Directors along with CIHR have changed the award name (effective March 23, 2016) to the John Dirks Canada Gairdner Global Health Award to recognize the contributions of Dr. John Dirks, President and Scientific Director of the Gairdner Foundation. Dr. Dirks is responsible for the development of the award along with building an international adjudication committee and building its brand as a world-renowned global health award.  

  • Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA

    Awarded "for his many pioneering contributions to our understanding of HIV infections and his extraordinary leadership in bringing successful treatment to the developing world"

    The work: Dr. Fauci has made critical contributions to the understanding of how HIV destroys the body's immune defenses. His defining research on the mechanisms of HIV disease along with his work on developing and testing drug therapies have been highly influential in establishing the scientific basis for effective HIV therapies and prevention modalities for patients living with HIV/AIDS.

    The impact: As testament to his extraordinary research accomplishments, Dr. Fauci was ranked in a 2015 analysis of Google Scholar citations as the 14th most highly cited researcher of all time, dead or alive, in any field. In addition to his own individual contributions to science, Dr. Fauci has served as Director of the USA National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for 32 years.  In this role he has been a major driving force and thought leader in the biomedical research response to infectious diseases that have devastated many regions of the developing world.  He has been a key figure in marshalling U.S. government support for and directing research that led to the development of the antiretroviral drug combinations that have transformed the lives of HIV-infected individuals, providing many with an essentially normal life expectancy. One of Dr. Fauci's most important accomplishments was his role as the principal architect of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which over the past 13 years has been responsible for saving the lives of millions of HIV-infected individuals and preventing millions of HIV infections through the developing world, particularly in sub-Saharan African.

The Canada Gairdner Wightman Award, given to a Canadian who has demonstrated outstanding leadership in medicine and medical science throughout his/her career, is awarded to:

  • Dr. Frank Plummer, Special Advisor to the Chief Public Health Officer, Public Health Agency of Canada; Distinguished Professor, Medical Microbiology, College of Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Manitoba and former Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Resistance and Susceptibility to Infections (2001-2014)

    Awarded "for his groundbreaking research in Africa in understanding HIV transmission and his leadership at the Canadian National Microbiology Laboratory with pivotal roles in SARS, influenza and Ebola epidemics"

    The work:  In the 1980s, HIV/AIDS was largely viewed as a homosexual disease. Throughout the 1980s, Dr. Frank Plummer conducted research, facilitated by the University of Manitoba, on a large cohort of Nairobi sex workers which found that two thirds of them had HIV/AIDS which was astonishing at the time.   He also showed that about ten percent of these sex workers remain HIV uninfected despite multiple exposures. This identification of natural resistance to HIV has guided vaccine development strategies. He further went on to conduct work on mechanisms of resistance to HIV, risk factors for heterosexual transmission of HIV, mother-to-child transmission of HIV and developed public health strategies for control of sexually transmitted infections. Further research showed that many groups in addition to these female sex workers are immune to HIV. Over the next 16 years, Dr. Plummer remained in Nairobi, and this led to a series of investigations, international collaborations and some very important discoveries about the susceptibility to HIV infection and transmissibility.

    The impact: His original and sustained contributions in this field have led to innovative strategies for HIV prevention at an internationally recognized level, and are being used around the world to prevent many thousands of HIV infections. Dr. Plummer, Distinguished Professor, University of Manitoba, is a pioneering HIV/AIDS researcher thanks to not only his ground-breaking work but also his leadership as Scientific Director General at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg leading their response to numerous outbreaks including his support and contributions to the development of the Ebola vaccine programs in Canada, SARS treatment in 2003 and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic influenza outbreak.

The Canada Gairdner Awards will be presented at a dinner in Toronto on October 27th, 2016 as part of the Gairdner National and Student Outreach Programs, a two week lecture series given by Canada Gairdner Award winners at more than 22 universities from St John's to Vancouver. The National Program reaches students across the country, making the superstars of science accessible and inspiring the next generation of researchers. "The Canada Gairdner Awards distinguish Canada as a leader in biomedical research, raising the profile of science both nationally and on the world stage," said Dr. John Dirks, President and Scientific Director, Gairdner Foundation. "This year's International winners are an exceptional example of the future of gene editing which is taking the research world by storm."

Dr. Dirks is retiring from the Gairdner Foundation on May 4, 2016 when Dr. Janet Rossant (Chief of Research Emeritus, The Hospital for Sick Children; Senior Scientist, University of Toronto) will begin as President and Scientific Director. Dr. Dirks has been President and Scientific Director since 1993 and during his time the profile of the Foundation has grown extensively. He internationalized the adjudication committees and expanded the Gairdner National and Student Outreach Programs to include the 22 universities across Canada. In 2008, Dr. Dirks successfully spearheaded a request to the Government of Canada to support and rename the Gairdner Awards through a grant of $20 million which enhanced the value of the awards from $30,000 to $100,000 each.

The Gairdner Foundation: Making Science Matter

The Canada Gairdner Awards were created in 1959 to recognize and reward the achievements of medical researchers whose work contributes significantly to improving the quality of human life. They are Canada's only globally known and respected international science awards, and Gairdner is the only national organization that consistently brings the world's best biomedical researchers to Canada to share their ideas and work with scientists across the country. In so doing, it enlarges networks and enhances Canada's international reputation, while providing a realistic and unbiased benchmark for Canada's leading scientists. All winners are chosen by an international adjudication committee and all choices are deemed final.

SOURCE Gairdner Foundation

Image with caption: "Gairdner Foundation (CNW Group/Gairdner Foundation)". Image available at: http://photos.newswire.ca/images/download/20160323_C4726_PHOTO_EN_649022.jpg

For further information: Sommer Wedlock, Director of Communications, Gairdner Foundation, sommer@gairdner.org, Main: 416-596-9996 ext.202, Cell: 647-293-6785

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