The 25th Annual Life Sciences BC Awards have acknowledged two exceptional Michael Smith Laboratories (MSL) faculty members, Drs. Peter Zandstra and Sabrina Leslie. These awards honour stand out individuals, companies and organizations creating significant advances and making innovative contributions to BC’s life sciences sector. Award recipients are selected by a panel of senior experts for their achievements. Two new categories were introduced this year, both of which include MSL faculty.
Dr. Peter Zandstra is nominated for the inaugural Scientific Entrepreneurship Award, which recognizes the role entrepreneurship in academia plays in helping to shape careers. Founding Director of the School of Biomedical Engineering (SBME) and faculty member and former Director of the MSL, Dr. Zandstra (he/him) straddles the space between academia and industry. On top of running a groundbreaking biotechnology research laboratory as a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Stem Cell Bioengineering, he has founded several biotechnology companies, including ExCellThera and Notch Therapeutics, both of which have made a significant impact in the design of novel therapeutic technologies.
Dr. Zandstra’s entrepreneurial spirit has shone brightly to many of his students and inspired them to think differently about their careers by paving their own way.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve been really blessed to work with fantastic students that have gone on to have many different careers. Notch Therapeutics, for example, was co-founded by one of my PhD students, Shreya Shukla. She developed an idea and launched a company that’s now creating new clinical technologies based on stem cells. The proudest moments I’ve had as a faculty member are seeing the successes of the students I’ve worked with in my lab and the impact they are having in society.” Dr. Zandstra reflects.
Dr. Zandstra encourages students who are interested in pursuing entrepreneurship to build a diverse team so each member can focus on what they are good at and dive deep into their area of expertise.
“Entrepreneurship connects the puzzle pieces between scientific discovery, translation, economic impact and health. It’s a really exciting spectrum to work on because at the end of the day, I’m doing biomedical engineering because I think it can make the world a better place for people that need health care improvements. If I can amplify the entrepreneurial spirit through students to expand the impact, that’s a great thing.”
Dr. Sabrina Leslie’s entrepreneurship@UBC venture ScopeSys made the new Companies to Watch: Recognition Honour Roll which “…celebrates the exceptional accomplishments of early-stage companies that have distinguished themselves from their peers over the last year.” A faculty member of both the MSL and UBC’s Department of Physic and Astronomy, Dr. Leslie (she/her) and her lab are pioneers in the burgeoning field of single cell imaging. They developed the CLiC platform, an innovative high-resolution microscopy system, translated by UBC-spin-out ScopeSys, used to image single cells and their interactions with molecules, as well as the interactions between the molecules themselves. Scientists can observe and measure the properties and interactions of these molecules and apply the information gathered to improve therapeutic design.
“The field of single molecule biophysics helps to dissect, understand and apply insights into the interactions and dynamics at the single-molecule and single-cell level to real products. Everything you experience, from the effectiveness of your vaccine to the texture of your sunscreen comes from the interaction of single molecules,” explains Dr. Sabrina Leslie.
With this innovative technology, Scopesys hopes to inform the improvement of drug delivery systems like the lipid nanoparticle technology used with mRNA vaccines, helping to optimize dosages. Working with strategic industry partners this novel tool will contribute to the design, development and discovery of drugs and vaccines.
“Life begins with single molecules and single cells, one example being the sperm and the egg. They’re foundational,” reflects Dr. Leslie. “Tools to look at single cells are integral for understanding how biology works at its most fundamental level, but also how it might go wrong and lead to the onset of disease.”
The impressive contributions of both Dr. Zandstra and Dr. Leslie are much deserving of this recognition. We whole heartedly congratulate them on these achievements and look forward to seeing where their entrepreneurial scientific journeys will take them.