A physician who identified the genetic underpinning of Huntington's disease and more common illnesses such as heart disease is this year's winner of a Canada Gairdner Award for leadership.

The $100,000 awards for seven recipients are considered Canada's Nobel Prizes and honour groundbreaking medical research in the fields of genetics, preventable infectious disease such as diarrhea, and the immune system.

Dr. Michael Hayden, the Canada research chair in human genetics and molecular medicine at the University of British Columbia, and his team identified genes for several rare disorders and more prevalent diseases, including heart disease and diabetes, as well as chronic pain. He also founded three companies to develop screening tests and treatments based on the discoveries.

"I start at the bedside, which is at the patient, and then I go to the lab, but I always want to get back to the bedside," Hayden said. "That means I have to go back with either diagnostics, or therapeutics or something that offers hope to these patients."

Hayden credited the networks of excellent researchers and patients he's worked with across Canada and internationally for the success. The researchers showed imagination, creativity, curiosity and sense of irreverence against accepting the status quo — qualities that he said are now being rewarded.

Hayden came to Canada from South Africa, where he said he was inspired by families stigmatized by Huntington's disease and who often express their gratitude for the predictive test while reminding him of the need for prevention. 

It was in South Africa that Hayden said he also gained an appreciation for democracy and free speech that he calls a key part of scientific creativity and collaboration that flourished in Canada.

Work 'will change the face of medicine'

"These networks in Canada have been incredibly facilitating," Hayden said. "We can start with a child who goes into heart failure because they're taking an anti-cancer drug. Well, we can now predict and stratify which patients and which children will get this and not." 

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Dr. Robert Black of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., discovered that zinc can both treat and prevent diarrhea in developing countries. (Courtesy Canada Gairdner Foundation)

The 2011 Gairdners also recognized medical achievements by international researchers. 

"These awards recognize more than just great discoveries," Dr. John Dirks, president and scientific director of Gairdner, said in a release.

"They pay tribute to these extraordinary people who are not afraid to take risks, to explore uncharted territory in medicine. Each of these recipients saw a medical need and dedicated their lives to working toward a solution. Their work will change the face of medicine."

Dr. Robert Edward Black of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., won the Canada Gairdner Global Health Award for the discovery that zinc can both treat and prevent diarrhea, an infectious disease that takes the lives of 1.3 million children each year worldwide.

Following Black's discovery, the World Health Organization and UNICEF recommended the use of zinc to treat diarrhea, a potentially life-saving treatment that is now used in 40 low-income countries.

The Canada Gairdner International Awards recognized the contributions to medical science by:

  • Adrian Peter Bird, University of Edinburgh, U.K.
  • Dr. Howard Cedar, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel.  
  • Aharon Razin, Hebrew University. 

The scientists showed how adding a simple chemical group called a methyl group to DNA affects how and when genetic information is used. Inappropriate silencing of gene expression by "DNA methylation" occurs in cancer as an alternative to DNA permanent mutations.

It is hoped that understanding how to turn methylation on and off could lead to treatments for cancer and other diseases.

The international awards also recognized a new understanding of how immune cells recognize and attack foreign pathogens by:

  • Jules A. Hoffmann, University of Strasbourg in France.
  • Dr. Shizuo Akira of Osaka University in Japan.

Hoffman discovered receptors that act as a sensor for microbes and essentially mobilize the immune system to fight infection. Akira then showed how these "Toll-like receptors" allow the immune system to "remember" invading pathogens and allow it to mobilize quickly and effectively in the future.

Treatments to turn the receptors on and off are being tested to fight infectious diseases, cancer, allergies, autoimmune diseases and septic shock.

Canadian philanthropist James Arthur Gairdner created the prizes, which were first awarded in 1959 to recognize international medical researchers whose work helped improve the quality of human life.

The awards will be presented at a dinner in Toronto in October.