Gairdner award winners speak at the Faculty of Medicine

Faculty of Medicine

By David McFadden

Research Writer, Faculty of Medicine

Four people pose for a picture.
Credit: Wes Payne | Faculty of Medicine
At a lecture series at Roger Guindon Hall, Dr. Deborah Cook and Dr. Drew Weissman spoke about their trailblazing work and answered questions from the audience.

Two internationally acclaimed researchers recently came to the uOttawa Faculty of Medicine as part of a tour that brings together Canada Gairdner Laureates and world class scientists as they lecture at universities across the country.

The Gairdner Foundation’s awards are widely perceived as among the most prestigious awards in biomedical science. Over the years, the awards have been nicknamed the “baby Nobels” as numerous winners have gone on to win Nobel Prizes.

This year’s event at Roger Guindon Hall featured Dr. Deborah Cook and Dr. Drew Weissman. On October 24, the two scientists spoke about their research work and answered questions from the audience. There were also opportunities to meet the two awardees at a reception following the lecture.

Dr. Cook, winner of the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award, discussed her trailblazing work focusing on the treatment of patients in the intensive care unit and enhanced end-of-life care. The Gairdner Foundation says her work has greatly improved the critical care field and positively influenced critical care practice across the world.

She’s a founding member of the globe’s first successful critical care research collaboration: the Canadian Critical Care Trials Group. During her lecture, she tipped her hat to the many world-class research colleagues in Ottawa, including the Faculty’s Dr. Paul Hebert, who she said played a major part in ramping up the Group.

A person poses for a picture
Dr. Deborah Cook, winner of the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award, discussing her trailblazing work on the treatment of patients in the intensive care unit and enhanced end-of-life care.

Dr. Cook, who teaches at McMaster University and practices at St. Joseph’s HealthCare, said that end-of-life care used to be viewed as “soft science” and there were huge knowledge gaps. But she worked hard to legitimize end-of-life studies since death is of course a universal experience and there are such massive human and economic costs of critical illness for patients, families, and healthcare systems.

“It’s the only thing that all human beings are going to go through. One hundred percent of us are going to go through this,” she said, referring to the end-of-life experience.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Weissman is one of the pioneering researchers whose methodical work over the span of decades led to COVID-19 vaccine development.  He was awarded a Canada Gairdner International Award.

During his lecture at uOttawa, he spoke about the foundational research with two collaborators that enabled the rapid availability of highly effective and safe COVID-19 mRNA vaccines.

Over years, Dr. Weissman and his research partner Dr. Katalin Karikó discovered how to engineer mRNA so it could be used to produce the desired protein after introduction into cells. But how do you get mRNA into the body’s cells? The work of UBC’s Dr. Pieter Cullisdeveloped the necessary lipid nanoparticle technology for that critical step.

Dr. Weissman is the director of the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation and director of vaccine research at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. At the close of his lecture, he spoke about the thrill of conducting lab work that eventually impacts people across the world.

“I’m very excited to be in this field. And I hope the people in this theatre see this field as an exciting future,” Dr. Weissman said.