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Gairdner awards honour top medical researchers

Gairdner awards honour top medical researchersDr. Salim Yusuf is shown in a handout photo. Yusuf, director of the Population Health Research Institute at McMaster University, will receive the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award for leadership in global clinical trials and population studies that have shaped prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

TORONTO - A Canadian researcher who has spent more than three decades investigating how to prevent and treat cardiovascular disease among populations around the world is among the winners of the 2014 Canada Gairdner Awards for significant medical research.

Dr. Salim Yusuf, director of the Population Health Research Institute at McMaster University, will receive the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award for leadership in global clinical trials and population studies that have shaped prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease.

Yusuf's epidemiological work in about 85 countries has shown that most heart attacks result from similar risk factors, no matter where a person lives. One of the many studies he has led, the HOPE trial, showed that the ACE-inhibitor drug ramipril saved lives by preventing heart attacks and strokes among patients with stable heart disease.

"I was obviously very pleased," he said of the honour, noting that it's unusual for clinical and population research to be recognized with major awards, despite the direct impact such work has on human health.

Selection committees "usually give them to people who make discoveries of a molecule or an enzyme or genetics," Yusuf said in an interview from Hamilton.

"So in a sense it's a recognition that improving human health is just as important as the elegance of a discovery ... I'm pleased because it may be part of a cultural shift in recognizing what is valued in research."

Yusuf, who came to McMaster in 1992 after working at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Oxford University in England, said the Gairdner may be in his name, but it really pays tribute to the entire international team that has conducted the research.

Recipients of the awards, which were created in 1959, each receive $100,000. Gairdners have been dubbed the "baby Nobels" because more than 80 recipients have gone on to win the world's most coveted scientific prize.

"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 of the Gairdner Foundation. "This year's winners are an exceptional example of highly effective outcomes from translational research."

The winners of five other Gairdners also were announced Wednesday.

The Canada Gairdner International Awards, which recognize individuals from various fields for seminal discoveries or contributions to medical science, go to:

— James P. Allison of the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston for his development of an antibody that frees "blocked" immune cells so they can attack cancer cells. His discovery resulted in a drug to treat metastatic melanoma, which has also shown promise against prostate, kidney, lung and ovarian cancers.

— Titia de Lange, Rockefeller University in New York, for her discovery of the mechanisms by which telomeres — the ends of chromosomes — are protected from deleterious DNA repair, which can lead to diseases such as cancer.

— Marc Feldmann and Ravinder Nath Maini, University of Oxford, for their discovery of a drug that protects against a molecule that drives inflammation and joint damage. The genetically engineered agent can reduce pain and improve mobility, without increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

— Dr. Harold Fisher Dvorak, Harvard Medical School in Boston, and Dr. Napoleone Ferrara of the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center in La Jolla, Calif., for the discovery of a key mediator of blood vessel formation, leading to the development of a therapy for cancer and wet macular degeneration.

The Canada Gairdner Global Health Award, which recognizes a scientific advancement that has had a significant impact on health in the developing world, goes to Satoshi Omura, professor emeritus at Kitasato University in Tokyo.

Omura led a team in the 1970s that discovered the micro-organism Streptomyces avermitilis, which was developed by Merck into the drug ivermectin to treat many parasitic diseases, including river blindness and elephantiasis. Ivermectin is also the drug of choice for treating scabies and head lice, and research is looking at its effectiveness against other tropical diseases.

The awards will be presented at a dinner in Toronto on Oct. 30 as part of the Gairdner National Program, a two-week lecture series given by Gairdner winners at 24 universities from St. John's to Vancouver. The program makes "the superstars of science" accessible to students across the country, with the goal of inspiring the next generation of researchers.

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