Awards and recognition

First Zymeworks – Michael Smith Laboratories Fellowships in Advanced Protein Therapeutics awarded

Written by Julie Grondin from the Brumer Lab, Michael Smith Laboratories


The Michael Smith Laboratories, in partnership with Zymeworks, Inc., a leading biotechnology company in BC, have awarded two Zymeworks-Michael Smith Laboratories Fellowships in Advanced Protein Therapeutics. The 3-year fellowship competition was open to PhD students who demonstrated academic excellence, leadership distinction, and research potential in the discovery and development of biological techniques with applications in the treatment of disease. This award represents the most prestigious internal awards offered to graduate students of the Michael Smith Laboratories. Winners, Teesha Luehr (Foster Lab), and John Edgar (Zandstra Lab), were announced at a VIP Reception following the 25th Anniversary Celebration of Michael Smith’s Nobel Prize Symposium on October 1, 2018.

Teesha Luehr, PhD candidate in Prof. Leonard Foster’s lab

During Teesha’s PhD thesis, she plans to create a new vaccine development strategy to avoid roadblocks typically encountered in traditional vaccine development. “Rather than look at the pathogen and try to predict the antigen that will be presented by human immune cells in order to mount an immune response, we are approaching vaccine development from the side of the human cell line first,” she explained. “Our strategy takes into account the diversity of the human adaptive immune system by using multiple cell lines with genetic diversity.” Teesha plans to test her approach by creating a vaccine against the common foodborne pathogen Salmonella enterica. “This pathway can be adapted for any pathogen regardless of containment level, and doesn’t involve any guess work or prior treatment of the pathogen”.

The Foster lab specializes in quantitative proteomics and mass spectroscopy, the primary techniques that Teesha will deploy in her research. She noted that the multidisciplinary expertise across the Michael Smith Laboratories will also be key to her success. “Vaccine development requires expert knowledge of multiple aspects of the process, and at the Michael Smith Laboratories, these experts are all in the same building.” The partnership of the Michael Smith Laboratories with a biotechnology leader like Zymeworks, provides a unique opportunity for students, “as a student, making those first connections in industry can be difficult, and this award facilitates that process.”

John Edgar, PhD Candidate in Prof. Peter Zandstra’s lab

As a biomedical engineer, John’s research will focus on developing in vitro systems to produce stem cell-derived T-cells with cancer targeting properties. Current T-cell therapies are limited by the reliance on a patient’s own cells and are prohibitively expensive. “Engineered T-cells could be generated from a variety of donors without the need for immune matching, and banked to provide an ‘off-the-shelf’ cell therapy,” he explained. His project builds on existing expertise in the Zandstra lab in engineering regenerative therapeutics. His strategy will provide new cell sources for cancer therapies that eliminate the need to use a patient’s own cells, and would allow for large-scale cell manufacturing that would greatly reduce costs. “The broad implication is to make life-saving cancer therapies available to more patients.”

The Zandstra lab specializes in understanding multiscale interactions between cells and the influence that these have on internal regulatory control networks that shape cell fate. Translating stem cell-derived T-cells to the clinic will require John to develop new bioprocesses that do not use animal serum or other animal products. “The Michael Smith Laboratories’ strength in biochemistry and chemical synthesis together with Zymeworks mission to address unmet medical needs with the use of protein therapeutics offers great opportunities for collaboration to identify new proteins and small molecules.” John’s interests revolve around translational biology, “I would be thrilled to make even a small contribution to a cancer therapy that eventually makes it into the clinic.” John’s long-term goal is to make Vancouver home and work in the biotechnology sector there. “This fellowship is a stepping stone that will help make that goal a reality.”

Left to Right: Peter Zandstra, John Edgar, Teesha Luehr, John Babcook of Zymeworks