Finlay is top young scientist in Canada

by Hilary Thomson
Staff writer

UBC Biotechnology Laboratory researcher Brett Finlay has been awarded the 1998 Steacie Prize in the natural sciences, Canada's top award for young scientists and engineers.

Last year's award also went to a researcher in the Biotechnology Lab, Prof. Terry Snutch.

"To have a biologist receive the prize two years in a row is very unusual," says Prof. Doug Kilburn, the lab's director. "To have both of these individuals come from the same small academic unit is unprecedented."

"This recognition is extremely flattering," says Finlay. "The list of previous winners is like the who's who of Canadian science."

The cash award of $10,000 for outstanding scientific research is given annually to a Canadian of 40 years of age or younger.

"The Biotechnology Lab exemplifies the power of interdisciplinary research," says Bernard Bressler, vice-president, Research. "In the last six years, the work of the lab has been recognized not only with two Steacies, but also with Michael Smith's Nobel Prize in Chemistry."

Reflecting the lab's interdisciplinary nature, Finlay holds professorships in three areas: the Biotechnology Lab, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Microbiology and Immunology.

He conducts bacterial disease research, looking for new ways to treat diseases such as salmonella and E.coli.

The need for new treatments is becoming critical as bacteria rapidly become resistant to currently used antibiotics, says Finlay.

His research focuses on the interactions between disease-causing bacteria and their host cells. He wants to know how these pathogens adhere, enter, survive, replicate and exit the host cells.

The lab recently discovered that E. coli bacteria insert a soluble bacterial protein into the host cell membrane. The bacteria bind to this inserted protein, rearrange the host cell microvilli -- the microscopic filaments on the membrane surface -- to form a pedestal or base camp to launch their invasion in the host.

It is unique to find a pathogen that can put its receptor, a protein that allows the bacteria to adhere to the host, directly into a host cell and thrive on it, says Finlay.

Previously it was believed that receptors existed within the host cells and were not of bacterial origin.

The next step is to work with biotechnical companies to develop vaccines that will prevent the E.coli bacteria from infecting cows, which will in turn protect beef consumers. Vaccines for humans could also be used.

Finlay is also investigating how the epithelial cells found in the lining of the stomach and intestinal tract absorb salmonella bacteria, which work from inside the intestinal cells.

He aims to identify how the bacteria functions within the cells and to develop methods to block the bacteria's entry into the body.

"No one area or researcher can find all the answers," says Finlay. "The joy of the Biotechnology Lab is that its members can draw on a rich variety of expertise. We're constantly shifting boundaries to create collaborations that stretch across disciplines."

Finlay has also been designated a Medical Research Council Scientist, has twice been named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Research Scholar and is a recipient of UBC's Killam Research Prize.