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Canada’s Salim Yusuf wins prestigious Gairdner award

Dr. Salim Yusuf, director of the Population Health Research Institute and vice-president of research at Hamilton Health Sciences.


A McMaster University researcher whose global approach to heart disease has touched millions of lives is the winner of the 2014 Canada Gairdner Wightman Award, one of the world's most prestigious medical prizes, the Gairdner Foundation announced Wednesday.

Salim Yusuf is director of the Population Health Research Institute and vice-president of research at Hamilton Health Sciences, a network of teaching hospitals and care centres affiliated with McMaster university's medical school. The Gairdner Wightman award recognizes outstanding contributions of a Canadian researcher to medical science throughout his or her career.

Additional recipients were named winners of the 2014 Canada Gairdner International Award, considered a reliable predictor of the Nobel Prize. This year's winners offer a snapshot of current trends in medical research across several key domains including:

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  • James Allison of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, for discoveries that have led to a new form of cancer therapy that harness the body’s immune system to fight attack cancer cells.
  • Titia de Lange of Rockefeller University, New York, for discovering the mechanism by which sequences of DNA called telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes in normal cells. The mechanism has implications for cancer diagnosis and may be intimately related to aging.
  • Sir Marc Feldmann and Sir Ravinder Nath Maini, of the University of Oxford, for work leading to the first effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and opening the doorway to biologic therapies that are used to treat disease using genetically engineered drugs.
  • Harold Fisher Dvorak of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston and Napoleone Ferrara of the University of California San Diego for discovering a key factor related to blood-vessel growth leading to treatments for cancer and age-related macular degeneration

The Foundation also announced that Satoshi Omura of Kitasato University in Tokyo is this year's winner of the Canada Gairdner Global Health Award, which recognizes work that has made a significant impact on the developing world. In the 1970s, Dr. Omura discovered a microorganism-produced compound that would eventually proved to be an effective weapon against a number of parasitic diseases including river blindness and elephantiasis.

The Gairdner awards, each of which comes with a $100,000 prize, will be presented at a ceremony in Toronto in October.

Dr. Yusuf, the Gairdner Wightman winner, is best known for his role in leading large-scale clinical trials involving tens of thousands of patients in dozens of countries. Because of the sheer statistical power of big numbers, such "mega-trials" have yielded significant advances in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Yusuf's work also illuminates how societal shifts, including increased urbanization and dietary changes in the developing world, can translate into a greater incidence of heart attacks and stroke. It's an approach that has put him in the frontlines of a battle to reduce what has become the world's leading cause of death.

"This is a richly deserved award," said Sydney Smith, past president of the World Heart Federation and a professor of cardiology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

"His clinical research and leadership have had a substantial impact in the care of patients with heart disease and in improving their outcomes."

Born in the small village of Kottarakkara in the Kerala region of southwestern India, Dr. Yusuf received his medical training at Bangalore University before a Rhodes scholarship brought him to Oxford in the mid-1970s. There, working with Peter Sleight, a celebrated cardiologist, among others, Dr. Yusuf became involved in the research that would set the course for the rest of his career.

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"In cardiovascular disease in those days there was no treatments we knew that worked," Dr. Yusuf said. "We said either treatments really don't work or they work but we aren't designing our studies to detect the fact that they work."

The solution was to design studies on a scale 10 times larger, or more than standard clinical trials of the day. As the numbers grew so too would the certainty about which treatments were effective and how they might vary across different populations.

The idea developed into trials run across many countries, which had the potential to net a far larger and more diverse set of heart patients but also required a paring down of complex procedures and co-ordination on a global scale. Dr. Yusuf would later continue to refine the approach while working at National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. But a desire to be closer to clinical research and a higher comfort level with Canadian-style public health care drew him to McMaster in 1992.

During the past two decades Hamilton has become Dr. Yusuf's home base as he has spearheaded a succession of increasingly larger heart studies, including one ongoing study of 155,000 individuals drawn from 700 communities worldwide.

"He has the most ferocious travel schedule I know," said John Kelton, dean of McMaster's school of medicine.

He added that Dr. Yusuf has been an inspirational figure for younger researchers and is consistently one of the highest impact researchers in Canada.

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"At our hospitals, we witness first hand the great impact he has had on patient care," said Rob MacIsaac, head of Hamilton Health Sciences.

During the award announcement in Toronto, Dr. Yusuf was named this year's winner of Canada Gairdner Wightman award, which recognizes outstanding contributions of a Canadian researcher to medical science throughout his or her career.

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