Alberta has gone from not having any researchers studying prion diseases less than a decade ago to now being a global leader in prion and protein misfolding research. This would not have been possible without the creation of a talent pool of world-class prion researchers.
Image courtesy of the ASTech Foundation
With funding from the Alberta Prion Research Institute, Alberta universities have recruited 11 world-class prion researchers from outside of the province. The work of these recruits and the dozens of researchers who were already in Alberta and are now studying prions is one of the reasons Alberta is now recognized as a global leader in prion and protein misfolding research.
The recruits have made significant findings since their arrival in Alberta. Judd Aiken and Debbie McKenzie discovered variant strains of chronic wasting disease. Ted Allison and his team developed specialized transgenic zebrafish to model mammalian prion diseases. Valerie Sim and her research collaborators found conditions under which prions can assume slightly different shapes in the brain. David Coltman and his team found that deer lack natural genetic resistance to chronic wasting disease.
Sabine Gilch, Hermann Schätzl and Holger Wille, the three most recent recruits from the United States, are leading researchers in their specialized areas of prion research. Moving research labs across borders is a huge endeavour. Dr. Wille spent his first two years in Alberta setting up his lab and recruiting graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The infrastructure at the University of Alberta Centre for Prions and Protein Folding Diseases and the acquisition of a $2.5 million transmission electron microscope, which is essential to his research on understanding the structure and function of prion proteins, were significant reasons for making the move from California. Drs. Gilch and Schätzl brought several pieces of specialized equipment with them in 2012 from their labs in Wyoming. This equipment will be housed in a new research facility currently being built at the University of Calgary Foothills campus. When completed, the dedicated prion research facility and cell culture labs will have significant impacts on the research being done in Calgary.
Sabine Gilch and Hermann Schätzl
Stefanie Czub is an internationally-respected researcher of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or commonly known as mad cow disease) and one of the few scientists in the world certified to make a clinical diagnosis of BSE. Dr. Czub is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Calgary and the Research Manager at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Lethbridge and Head of the Canadian and OIE (the World Organisation for Animal Health, historically the Office International des Epizooties) Reference Laboratories for BSE. Dr. Czub is currently researching atypical BSE (the spontaneous version of BSE) and the potential of chronic wasting disease transferring to humans.
David Westaway is a world-renowned prion researcher. The University of Alberta recruited him in 2005 to be the Director of the Centre for Prions and Protein Folding Diseases. Dr. Westaway has made key discoveries with his funding from the Alberta Prion Research Institute. In 2007, he and his collaborators defined a mammalian glycoprotein called shadoo. This was the first prion-like protein synthesized in the brain since the prion protein was first identified in the early 1980s. In 2013, Dr. Westaway and his collaborators discovered that the cellular prion protein is reduced early on in many types of prion infections, suggesting a host protective response and a new point of intervention to slow down the progress of prion diseases.
The move to Alberta gave these 11 world-class researchers the opportunity to work in state-of-the-art research facilities. Relocation also gave them access to dedicated prion research funding. “The Alberta Prion Research Institute is why Alberta is so attractive to prion researchers. We need funding to do our research. The established group of researchers is another reason we moved. Being in close proximity supports collaboration: critical mass focused on one topic working closely together” says Dr. Gilch, recruited to the University of Calgary in 2012 and now a Canada Research Chair in Prion Diseases.
The talent pool is indeed a critical mass focused on prion and protein misfolding research. In total, the Alberta Prion Research Institute has funded 48 researchers since its inception in April 2005. Hundreds of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and research technicians have worked with the 48 researchers. Alberta is now a world leader in prion research because of the talent pool that has been created since the formation of the Alberta Prion Research Institute.
BY CINDY LIEU
Valerie Sim (left) with postdoctoral fellow Jitendra Kumar