Thomas Jessell, Ph.D., Receives 2012 Gairdner Foundation Award

March 21, 2012

The Gairdner Foundation has announced the recipients of the 2012 Canada Gairdner Awards. Recognized for some of the most significant medical discoveries from around the world, this year’s winners showcase a broad range of new medical insights, from pioneering new ways to tackle childhood illness in developing countries to identifying how our biological clocks guide our everyday lives.

Among the world’s most esteemed medical research prizes, the awards distinguish Canada as a leader in science and provide a $100,000 prize to scientists whose work holds important potential. The 2012 winners are as follows:

• Thomas M. Jessell, Ph.D., Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Kavli Institute for Brain Science, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, NY

The challenge: Through communication between the sensory neuron and the motor neuron in our bodies’ nervous system, we acquire the ability to move and react to the world around us. But little was known about how these neurons communicate with each other.

The work: Dr. Jessell’s work reveals the basic principles of nervous system communication. By studying the assembly and organization of the circuit that controls movement in the spinal cord nervous system, Dr. Jessell identified the direct connection between the sensory neuron, which is responsible for allowing us to process what is happening in the world around us, and the motor neuron, which allows us to control how our muscles move to react to what we sense in that world.

Why it matters: As a result of this discovery, we have the potential to create interventional strategies to treat and cure neurodegenerative diseases such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), where a problem with the circuit connection between the sensory neuron and the motor neuron prevents our minds and bodies from reacting properly to what we sense around us. Similarly, we now have the potential to restore movement in patients with spinal cord injury or paralysis.

(To learn more about Dr. Jessell and his work, read "The Promise of the Brain.")

OTHER AWARD WINNERS INCLUDE: • Jeffrey C. Hall, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Biology, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA

• Michael Rosbash, Ph.D., Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Department of Biology, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA

• Michael W. Young, Ph.D., Laboratory of Genetics, The Rockefeller University, New York, NY

The challenge: We’ve known for centuries that our bodies are controlled by a biological clock, but how that biological clock works has remained a mystery. How does this internal clock guide our bodies through the day?

The work: These scientists discovered how our circadian clock – commonly known as our biological clock – ticks. Circadian clocks are active throughout the body’s cells, where they use a common genetic mechanism to control the rhythmic activities of various tissues.

Why it matters: Circadian clocks affect patterns of sleep and wakefulness, metabolism, and our response to disease. Understanding how the biological clock works has already allowed scientists to pinpoint irregularities in important sleep disorders.

• Jeffrey V. Ravetch, Ph.D., M.D., Theresa and Eugene Lang Professor; Head, Leonard Wagner Laboratory of Molecular Genetics and Immunology, The Rockefeller University, New York, NY

The challenge: Historically, science has shown that our immune systems’ primary function is to help combat viruses and bacteria. Yet, the immune system, when dysfunctional, can also cause autoimmune diseases and severe health consequences.

The work: Dr. Ravetch’s work demonstrates how our immune system can be both protective as well as harmful. Antibodies in our immune system trigger different health outcomes by binding to molecules called “Fc receptors” to change their protective activity. The Fc receptor system allows antibodies that are produced by the body to defend against toxins, bacteria and viruses, ultimately leading to their inactivation and removal.

Why it matters: By identifying how antibodies work, and how autoantibodies can be manipulated to prevent them from doing harm, Dr. Ravetch’s work paves the way to understanding how to develop therapies for various autoimmune diseases such as lupus and arthritis, as well as cancer and infectious diseases.

The Canada Gairdner Global Health Award, recognizing someone who is responsible for a scientific advancement that has made, or has the potential to make, a significant impact on health in the developing world, goes to:

• Brian M. Greenwood, M.D., London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK

The challenge: Meningitis, pneumonia, and malaria – cyclical diseases dictated by seasonal weather patterns – are some of the most prominent causes of mortality in young children throughout the developing world, especially in Africa.

The work: After identifying early in his career that meningitis and pneumonia were significant causes of childhood deaths in Africa, Dr. Greenwood evaluated two groups of vaccines to prevent these diseases, and proved Haemophilus and Pneumococcal conjugate vaccines were highly effective in reducing mortality in African children. In addition, he showed how deaths from malaria can be prevented using drugs and insecticide-treated bed nets.

Why it matters: Dr. Greenwood and his colleagues proved that insecticide-treated bed nets and preventive treatment reduced child mortality by a third. He also showed that vaccinations were highly effective against meningitis and pneumonia. His practices have been recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and he is considered by many as the leading figure in international health and tropical medicine.

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

• Lorne A. Babiuk, OC, SOM, Ph.D., D.Sc., FRSC, Vice-President (Research), University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB

The challenge: Over 30 newly emerging and reemerging diseases have occurred over the last 30 years, 70 per cent of which have been transmitted from animals to humans. These diseases are the cause of significant mortality and morbidity and international infrastructure was needed to address this problem.

The work: Dr. Babiuk’s work has focused on studying how diseases are transmitted from animals to humans, while developing innovative vaccination approaches to control infectious diseases such as the Rotavirus. Through his study of infectious disease, and leadership role in the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) and at the University of Alberta, Dr. Babiuk has helped to relieve mortality, morbidity, and economic hardship caused by infectious disease.

Why it matters: The World Health Organization estimates that approximately one-third of all human deaths are caused by infectious disease. Dr. Babiuk’s work has shown how diseases can be transmitted from animals to humans, and how innovative vaccines will help to bring down the number of deaths caused by infectious disease.

The Canada Gairdner Awards will be presented at a dinner in Toronto on October 25th as part of the Gairdner National Program, a month-long lecture series given by Canada Gairdner Award winners at 21 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.

“Our 2012 Canada Gairdner Awardees are a group of modern-day explorers who have dedicated their lives to using basic science to discover answers to puzzling medical challenges,” said Dr. John Dirks, President and Scientific Director of Gairdner. “Because of their tenacity and their dedication, we have a whole new realm of potential medical solutions open to us. It is our hope the Awards continue to inspire researchers to conquer unchartered medical territory.”

The Canada Gairdner Awards distinguish Canada internationally as a leader in science, and are one part of Gairdner’s efforts to promote a stronger culture of research and innovation across the country.

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.

For more information please contact:

Candice Bruton 416-849-8938

Molly Chudnovsky 416-849-8914


Kavli Institute, New York, NY, Thomas Jessell