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Canadian Medical Hall of Fame inducts UBC microbiologist

The Ubyssey
November 27, 2017
Reported By:
Jaskiran Gakhal, The Ubyssey
Categories:
MSL in the News

These renowned individuals are among the 125 laureates of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame (CMHF), which recognizes Canadian heroes whose work has advanced health.

Established in 1994, the national charitable organization aims to inspire pursuit of careers in the health sciences, while celebrating the country’s rich medical history.

In April of 2018, an induction ceremony will see Canadian and international leaders recognize six new laureates.

Among the inductees will be Dr. Brett Finlay — UBC Peter Wall Distinguished Professor at the Michael Smith Laboratories — who will add this prestigious honour to the collection of awards that he has received for his contributions to understanding disease and improving people’s health.

A respected researcher in cellular microbiology, Finlay’s work on how microbes interact with humans to cause health and disease has led to human and animal vaccines, including a bovine vaccine to E-coli, as well as fundamental changes in our conceptions of health.

“The value of shining a light on individuals who are contributing to health in Canada and the world is important in that sometimes these are what I would call our ‘unsung heroes,’” said Lissa Foster, executive director of the CMHF.

At the CMHF, their objective is to “put the work or discovery in the public domain … [to] honour excellence, preserve history and connect generations.”

Foster explained that the CMHF does not make nominations for inductees themselves. Instead, they publicize calls for nominations among the medical and health science communities.

The categories for nomination include “leaders in health promotion, illness prevention and care, and leaders in research with national and international recognition,” which makes them open not just to medical researchers and scientists, but those who have contributed to health in a variety of ways. One such example is medical historian and laureate, Michael Bliss.

Then, their selection committee of medical professionals, appointed by the board of directors, reviews and rates the nominations according to a rubric provided by the CMHF.

“One of the things that’s probably the most challenging [about selection] is … just the volume of sheer excellence that exists in this country in the medical health arena … [and the] quality of the nomination packages is extremely high,” said Foster.

As the nomination package of UBC’s Finlay likely highlighted, his research indicates that certain microbes increase resistance to children developing asthma, which has implications for treatment, or even prevention. After all, if a child doesn’t have the right microbes, you could correct them.

As Finlay remarks, “You can’t change your genes, but you can change microbes.”

He notes that “if you take the top ten reasons why the average Canadian dies, nine of those ten now have microbial links, whereas five years ago, only one of them did.”

Known not just within the field but to the broader public as co-author with Dr. Marie-Claire Arrieta of the best-seller, Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Oversantitized World, Finlay notes the importance of being “able to communicate your science to the public.”

He does precisely this in the book, which outlines the scientific evidence regarding the possible dangers of excessive sanitation, such as lack of exposure to vital microbes; by making the research accessible, he provides guidance for parents concerned with their children’s well-being.

Making scientific findings available to the public is not all he is passionate about, though.

“I love the exploration and the new results. What you try to do as a scientist is find things that no one’s ever found before,” he said.

Most recently, Finlay’s lab has been looking at microbes and how they affect the brain, since there are several indications that Parkinson’s disease and dementia involve microbes. He humbly refers to himself as “the spokesperson for the team” with his graduate students “doing all the hard work.”