In honor of International Women’s Day, we introduce you to five GlycoNet scientists who are working behind the scenes to build a healthier Canada
by Ali Chou
In December 2015, the United Nations proclaimed February 11 the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. 2019 marked the fourth edition of this important day during which leaders from industry and academia, along with non-governmental organizations and individuals, reflect on and recognize the important contribution of women and girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Skip ahead in your calendar to March 8, International Women’s Day. It has been celebrated since 1975! As the world honors women in all spheres of society, we have another opportunity to salute women scientists who work tirelessly to advance medical research. It may seem excessive to have two days honoring women only weeks apart. However, women and girls remain largely underrepresented in scientific fields. International days serve as timely reminders of the need to talk about equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI).
In 2014, UNESCO reported that only 30% of the world’s researchers are women. The situation in Canada is surprisingly even more concerning. According to a 2017 report from McKinsey & Company women represented only 23% of people working in STEM fields.
EDI needs to be top of mind all year round if the scientific community wants to leverage the infinite potential of diversity. Role models matter. Talking about women’s successes is important. We should all take a moment today to acknowledge the important role women scientists play in building healthier communities from coast to coast.
GlycoNet is fortunate to have many research superwomen in its ranks. As a research Network, we believe that to achieve excellence, we need to leverage the ingenuity of scientists from diverse backgrounds and provide them with opportunities to collaborate. Here are five examples of women from the GlycoNet community who are working behind the scenes to find concrete solutions to the health challenges of Canadians.
Dr. Molly Shoichet is working to ease patient’s post-operative pain
As the opioid crisis continues to be of concern to medical professionals and patients having to deal with post-operative pain, Dr. Molly Shoichet is pioneering a new technology that allows for sustained release of anesthetics to provide pain relief. This new pain management method reduces the risk that patients might become addicted to opioids and other post-operative drugs.
Shoichet is an expert in the fields of drug delivery and regenerative medicine, the process of engineering human tissues to restore normal function. She is developing a technology that can release anesthetics to specific sites that were just operated on. Similar to local anesthetic that is sometimes administered pre-surgery, this technology allows pain medication to be delivered to a specific body part. This eliminates the need for patients to take a higher dosage of potentially addictive drugs like opioids, as their pain gets treated at the source. Shoichet co-founded AmacaThera, a Canadian company that works to translate research findings into concrete medical technologies and tools that healthcare professionals can leverage to improve the lives of patients. GlycoNet funded the pre-clinical studies necessary for Shoichet and her team to move their innovative pain treatment to the next step – a Phase I clinical trial.
Dr. Leah Cowen is developing drugs to fight life-threatening fungal infections
Dr. Leah Cowen has one big goal: to find new drugs to help people afflicted by infectious diseases.
Fungal infections affect over a billion people and kill more than 1.5 million per year. Although antifungal drugs are available, fungi, because they constantly evolve and adapt, can become drug resistant. This is especially concerning for patients with invasive infections, such as candidiasis, cryptococcosis, or aspergillosis, which can be fatal. To fight antifungal resistance, Cowen is developing new compounds that cripple harmful fungi. When treated with these compounds, the fungi are weakened and their capacity to grow and survive is impaired, potentially allowing the immune system to clear the infection. With collaborator, Dr. Luke Whitesell, Cowen continues to work towards pre-clinical drug development, a key step that could lead to the commercialization of innovative antifungal therapeutic drugs.
Dr. Lynne Howell is leading the team to uncover mechanisms to battle disease-causing pathogens
Scientists are constantly working for better treatments for infectious diseases. For years, it has been ever challenging because pathogens secrete long chain of sugars (exopolysaccharides) to adhere themselves to host and form strong communities, making it nearly impossible to eradicate. Lynne Howell, along with seven other network investigators and researchers, are solving the problem by finding ways to counter the enzymes that are involved in making exopolysaccharides.
For example, her team found families of several enzymes that could alter the chemical structure of exopolysaccharides produced by the pathogen. This alteration procedure is critical for the pathogen to survive and infect in the host. If these enzymes are inhibited, the pathogen becomes more prone to be cleared by the host’s immune system. Based on this discovery, Howell and her colleagues are gearing towards finding effective inhibitors for these enzymes. With computational and experimental experts from different research institutes across Canada, Howell and her team hope to soon uncover therapeutic inhibitors and test them through pre-clinical evaluation.
Dr. Lori Burrows is developing more effective vaccines for tuberculosis
Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb). TB plagues one third of the world’s population. Dr. Lori Burrows has spent years researching bacterial resistance and special appendages on bacterial surfaces. These appendages, known as Type IV pili, are essential to bacterial movement, a process that helps bacteria invade host tissues. Some Type IV pili are decorated with sugars that match those found on Mtb, suggesting they could be useful as a component in a new vaccine for tuberculosis.
When the purified, sugar-coated pilins are injected into an animal or person, the immune system recognizes them as foreign and makes antibodies that block them. Because of the similarities between those sugars and Mtb, this immunization also protects the body against the real bacteria that cause tuberculosis. Along with Dr. Zhou Xing, Burrows is currently investigating the effectiveness of these pili as components in vaccines, and how they compare to other types of tuberculosis vaccines.
Dr. Karla Williams is building a blood test that could replace an invasive procedure to detect prostate cancer
As the co-founder of GlyCa BioSciences Inc.— a Canadian biotechnology company created thanks to funding from GlycoNet — Dr. Karla Williams is working to improve how high-risk prostate cancer is detected. She is developing a blood test for prostate cancer. Results could be as accurate as those from a biopsy, a much more invasive procedure. Her breakthroughs in identifying cancer-specific sugars released in the bloodstream could lead to new ways of detecting and treating certain cancers. Together with her collaborator, Dr. Hon Leong, Williams is working to make GlyCa BioSciences’ new blood test a broadly available and game-changing tool to catch lethal prostate cancer earlier.
We invite you to reach out to one of GlycoNet’s five Research Superwomen, or to your favorite woman scientist on social media. Thank them for their work. Use the hashtag #ResearchSuperwomen and tag @glyconet_nce. We would love to discover women scientists that are part of your network and learn more about their cutting-edge work.
The Network of Centres of Excellence (NCE) programs, help build a more advanced, healthy, competitive and prosperous country. The participation of all qualified individuals, inclusive of members of under-represented groups, is essential to mobilize Canada’s best research, development and entrepreneurial expertise to create excellent, innovative and impactful results. GlycoNet, as part of the NCE, is committed to principles of equity, diversity and inclusion.