Research Excellence

Brain Health

Collaboration key to unravelling mysteries of the mind

Call it the ultimate brain trust. At UBC’s Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, more than 250 researchers from the fields of neurology, neuroscience and psychiatry are working together to solve the world’s greatest mystery: the human brain.

Bridging basic science and clinical care in a state‑of‑the‑art facility, the centre provides opportunities for education, collaboration, and interaction with patients from across BC. It is the largest and most comprehensive brain care and research centre in Canada, and is a partnership between UBC’s Faculty of Medicine, Vancouver Coastal Health, and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute.

Under the leadership of co‑directors Drs. Brian MacVicar and Jon Stoessl, the centre is poised to move research from the bedside to the bench and back again, in order to understand disease and translate research into better patient care and therapies.

“Interaction is key for us,” says MacVicar of the collaborative nature of the centre. “We want scientists and clinicians working together, sitting down to talk about the possibilities out there, learning about each other’s constraints, and talking about crazy ideas. We need the crazy ideas to challenge dogmas in brain science and come up with new solutions.”

The good news is that it’s working. The centre’s unique approach is helping UBC to recruit some of the world’s leading scientists, and is providing students with unprecedented experience in collaboration that could change the future of medicine. That’s welcome news given that brain disease is on its way to becoming Canada’s leading cause of death: it already affects one in three Canadians and costs the economy more than $30 billion a year.

The centre is home to clinics that investigate and treat virtually every kind of brain illness and injury, from Parkinson’s, ALS, Multiple Sclerosis, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s, to concussion, addiction and mental health.

It’s a hub for researchers such as Dr. Lara Boyd, a neuroscientist and physical therapist who holds the Canada Research Chair in Neurobiology of Motor Learning. Boyd’s multidisciplinary team in the Brain Behaviour Lab is successfully curbing the effects of stroke through early intervention and innovative treatments that stimulate healthy parts of the brain to take over lost functions.

“The centre’s integrated approach has been critical to my lab’s success,” says Boyd. “Solving problems such as strokes requires research from multiple angles. It’s making connections and leveraging information that we share – drugs and therapies – to maximize solutions.”

Heart and Lung

Predicting the unexpected: laying sudden cardiac deaths to rest

Sudden cardiac arrest kills more than 30,000 Canadians of all ages and all fitness levels every year.

In some of the most dramatic instances, seemingly healthy young athletes collapse suddenly on the playing field and die. Equally devastating are the cases that don’t make the headlines: the teenage daughter who goes to sleep and never wakes, or the mother who loses two babies to sudden infant death.

Up to 60 per cent of such cardiac arrest cases are due to arrhythmias – irregular heartbeats – passed down through families. But what if your child or loved one had this condition, and you didn’t know it?

It’s a terrifying scenario, and one that UBC’s head of Cardiology, Dr. Andrew Krahn, hopes to eliminate through his research into the genetic causes of arrhythmias.

An internationally recognized cardiac researcher, Krahn knows that with testing and timely intervention most of these deaths are preventable. He’s determined to develop an accurate test to detect and treat these hereditary conditions in people who otherwise appear healthy.

“Simply put, my goal is to stamp out sudden death,” says Krahn. “With accurate detection, preventative treatments like the use of beta‑blockers or implantable defibrillators are extremely successful at controlling arrhythmias.”

Krahn’s research, in collaboration with his peers in the fields of medical genetics and pediatrics, is making remarkable advances towards this goal.

In late 2013, the province launched the BC Inherited Arrhythmia Program (BCIAP), a groundbreaking initiative operating under Cardiac Services BC, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority. BCIAP, where Krahn is co‑medical director, brings together specialists in cardiology, pediatrics and genetics to diagnose and treat cardiac arrhythmias. There are an estimated 7,000 British Columbians living with, or at risk for developing, arrhythmias.

There are clinics at St. Paul’s and BC Children’s hospitals in Vancouver and Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, with outreach programs in Northern BC and clinics across the province that connect via videoconferencing. People concerned about their family history of inherited heart arrhythmia can be referred to BCIAP by their family doctor.

Krahn believes that with his team’s research and clinical work, and the leadership of institutions like UBC and the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the “lightning strike” of arrhythmia may soon be a thing of the past – not just in BC, but around the world.

Advanced Materials

UBC Research takes a quantum leap forward

Mere decades ago, the Internet emerged full of limitless possibilities and as‑yet‑unimagined potential. No one quite knew what it might become – only that its future looked promising.

Welcome to the world of quantum materials at UBC, where researchers are emerging as global leaders in the hunt for materials that could trigger a technical revolution to rival the Industrial Revolution.

Just as silicon transformed the microelectronics industry, quantum materials are set to transform existing industries in areas such as information processing, nanoelectronics, medicine and sustainable medicine. And they may well spawn totally new industries.

UBC’s Quantum Matter Institute, and the prestigious, state‑of‑the‑art Max Planck–UBC Centre for Quantum Materials partnership have attracted some of the top quantum materials research scientists and students from around the world.

UBC researchers have made pioneering contributions to the field: original ideas and proof‑of‑principle experiments that have spurred new ways of thinking, launched new experimental methods, and led to new materials with unprecedented properties.

One such internationally recognized advance is in the understanding of superconductors that, unlike today’s conductors, allow electricity to flow without resistance. This could have many applications, such as smarter and speedier computers, able to process intensely complex problems. Until now, however, superconductors have only functioned at extremely low temperatures – like minus‑150 Celsius – rendering them completely impractical for everyday use.

Dr. Andrea Damascelli leads a team of international scientists that recently made a breakthrough in our understanding of some of the common principles of superconductors. The team’s findings, published in Science in December 2013, could lead to the creation of a superconductor that works at a much higher temperature, and one day even at room temperature.

As quantum materials research advances, we are learning how to control the properties of the new materials we discover. With this comes the prospect of a whole new world of technical possibilities.


From killer to chronic, epidemic to eliminated: stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS through effective, sustained treatment

Just two decades ago, an HIV diagnosis brought with it stigma and suffering and eventually, death. End of story. But not anymore, thanks in large part to ongoing work pioneered in the 1990s and continuing to this day at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

Dr. Julio Montaner is the determined and much‑decorated head of UBC’s Division of AIDS and the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, a UBC‑affiliated centre based at Providence Health Care’s St. Paul’s Hospital.

Montaner was the principal investigator of an international 1996 study that showed a cocktail combination of drugs to be the most effective way to prevent HIV turning into AIDS. Known as HAART, or “highly active anti‑retroviral therapies,” the cocktail has essentially turned HIV/AIDS from a catastrophic diagnosis into something manageable with consistent, sustained lifelong treatment. This means people living with HIV can now lead healthy, normal lives, have children and plan for a future.

HAART was just the first step, however, in a battle that continues to this day in Canada and around the world. That is why Montaner developed a program he calls “Treatment as Prevention®,” or TasP®.

Many UBC researchers at the Centre for Excellence have supported Montaner in his work towards eliminating the spread of HIV and other related diseases, including Drs. Evan Wood, Thomas Kerr and Richard Harrigan.

On a global scale, TasP® has been adopted by the United Nations as its standard of care for HIV and AIDS. By expanding testing and access to anti‑retrovirals following a diagnosis, people living with HIV can receive effective, sustained treatment that improves their health and longevity, while dramatically reducing the likelihood that they will spread the disease.

So far, TasP® has been implemented to great success in BC. Between 1994 and 2013, the number of new AIDS cases in BC decreased from 696 to 84 – a drop of 88 per cent. It has also been embraced by China, Brazil, Spain, France, major US cities, and Queensland, Australia – among many others.

That is not to say the battle against HIV and AIDS has yet been won – there are still many barriers to accessing sustained treatment for some living with the disease – but the principles of TasP® are strengthening the global fight against it.

The UNAIDS 90‑90‑90 program aims to ensure 90 per cent of people infected with HIV are tested; 90 per cent of those diagnosed are on sustained antiretroviral treatment; and 90 per cent of those on treatment have undetectable viral loads. The goal: to virtually eliminate progression to AIDS, premature death and HIV transmission by 2020.

By 2030, the worldwide HIV/AIDS pandemic could be transformed into a low‑level sporadic endemic.

“We turned what was a crazy idea into a sound public policy,” says Montaner.

As the leader of both the BC‑CfE and the Division of AIDS at UBC, a former head of the International AIDS Society and a special advisor to the United Nations, Montaner wears many hats. They all have one thing in common: to eliminate HIV and AIDS, no matter what it takes.

This October, Montaner will be honoured with an alumni UBC Achievement Award.



Preserving the planet, species by species

The earth is home to an estimated 30 to 50 million species – many of them not yet discovered, and virtually all of them threatened by our human footprint.

At UBC’s Biodiversity Research Centre, more than 50 scientists representing disciplines from botany to zoology are conducting research aimed at helping us understand and conserve the diversity of plants and animals on the planet.

Researchers at the centre study the entire biological spectrum – from individual genes to entire ecosystems – to reveal the complexity and interrelated nature of life on our planet.

“Species extinctions, as well as widespread shifts in ecosystems, are on the rise due to human activities,” says Dr. Sally Otto, the centre’s director. “At the Biodiversity Research Centre, several of our teams study how global warming, ocean acidification, and habitat destruction impact the natural world and what steps are needed to reduce these impacts.”

Using techniques such as mathematical modelling and evolutionary experiments with yeast, Otto, an evolutionary biologist, explores how different species evolve and adapt to changing environments.

Understanding the factors involved in biodiversity, evolution and adaptation can inform future decisions around conservation and preservation, and could also contribute to the development of new medical treatments.

With the 2010 opening of the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC, researchers like Otto can now share their research and findings about ecology, evolution and conservation with each other and the public. The museum is home to more than two million specimens of plants, animals and fossils – including its iconic centerpiece: a blue whale skeleton (pictured behind Otto). But more importantly, it brings top biodiversity researchers and their teams together under one roof, where they are able to share their knowledge and discoveries, and inspire a more sustainable future.

Walking the talk as a clean energy powerhouse

When it comes to clean energy, UBC walks the talk.

Home to a living lab that fuels campus heat and electricity requirements from biomass, 
a state‑of‑the‑art research centre, and partnerships with prestigious international institutions and corporations, UBC is leading the charge to develop and utilize cleaner energy sources at home and around the world.

Sixty faculty and more than 200 graduate students work in the Clean Energy Research Centre (CERC), a hub for advancements in greener, cleaner energy.

“There is little doubt that energy is one of the most important challenges facing humanity in the 21st century,” says Dr. Walter Mérida, the centre’s director “Our scientists and engineers are doing pioneering, world‑class work on sustainable power innovations in the areas of sustainable transportation, low‑carbon fuels, renewable energy, conservation and energy conversion and storage.”

The centre’s work has also attracted funding from leading international academic and industrial energy experts to support both pure and applied research.

A $5 million partnership with the Fraunhofer Society, Europe’s largest applied‑research institution, is currently focused on five areas of clean energy research, from wind energy to zero‑emission vehicles.

The centre has also initiated collaborations with Tech Mahindra in India in smart grid technologies, the three South African centres of competence regarding hydrogen and fuel cells, the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy in climate change modelling, and the Korean Gas Corporation in natural gas processing and liquefaction – an important advancement for British Columbia’s emerging LNG sector.

Closer to home, the centre has been running a Master’s of Clean Energy Engineering program since 2009 (the first of its kind in North America). It is also is working with provincial stakeholders to develop a sustainable transportation system. In 2012 UBC’s partnership with local company Nexterra Systems Corporation and GE Energy resulted in the launch of its on‑site Bioenergy Research and Demonstration Facility. This small‑scale power production plant supplies heat and power to the 50,000 students, staff and faculty at UBC’s Vancouver campus using biomass – mainly waste lumber production products such as tree trimmings and wood chips.

Another project utilizing the campus as a living lab features a new smart‑grid storage system that efficiently stores energy from renewable sources. It was created in collaboration with Alpha Technologies and Corvus Energy.

Such innovation isn’t new: Westport Innovations, one of the university’s most successful spin‑off companies, has commercialized technology discovered at UBC almost 30 years ago to allow diesel truck engines to run on clean‑burning natural gas. That single innovation has ultimately led to Westport slashing the emissions of vehicle fleets through collaborations with partners around the world, and becoming a global leader in alternative fuel, low‑emissions technologies that allow engines to operate on cleaner‑burning fuels.


No fish tale: UBC centre fights to protect the world’s oceans

As the planet’s fisheries reach their ecological limits, marine ecosystems face a catastrophic collapse. Consumers can make a personal choice to eat responsibly harvested fish, but is it too little too late? Are we doing enough to stave off the impacts of overfishing and preserve a healthy ocean environment for future generations?

The UBC Fisheries Centre brings together leading multidisciplinary researchers to understand the impact we are having on our oceans and to work with maritime communities, government, NGOs and other partners to reverse the decline.

Their research runs the gamut, from looking at ways to run, restore and sustain fisheries, to a project that studies seahorses, all in an effort to advance our knowledge of marine conservation and the management of competing populations, habitats and trades.

Take Dr. Villy Christensen. The fisheries professor and co‑director of the UBC Fisheries Centre is driven by a single, complex question: Will there be seafood and healthy oceans for our children and grandchildren to enjoy? To find the answer, he is using global ecosystem models to measure the effect of human activity and climate change on marine populations.

Dr. Rashid Sumaila leads the Fisheries Economics Research Unit, which explores how ecosystems can provide sustainable and equitable economic and social benefits to both present and future generations, while maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.

In 2010, UBC launched a $13 million, nine‑year international partnership with The Nippon Foundation, a non‑profit organization based in Tokyo, with a mandate to research solutions to the over‑exploitation of resources around the world.

The impetus was the serious decline in fish populations, which has led to widespread concerns for the future. The NF‑UBC Nereus Program, named for the ancient Greek god of the ocean’s bounty, is developing an international research network that is capable of evaluating future scenarios for managing fisheries in the world’s oceans and change how we exploit them – for our children, grandchildren and descendants long after we are gone.

“One of the biggest challenges for conservation of fisheries is that most people can’t see the state of our oceans with their own eyes because from the surface, everything seems unchanged,” says Dr. Daniel Pauly, a professor at the Fisheries Centre and chair of the Nereus steering committee. “This program will bring the real impacts of our decision and actions right before our eyes.”

Closer to home, fish, and salmon fishing in particular have always been an important part of BC’s heritage and identity.

The Aboriginal Fisheries Unit marries traditional ecological knowledge to modern science in order to better support and manage ecosystems and aquatic resources.

Elsewhere, Dr. Tony Farrell in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems has looked at the impact of rising water temperatures on the province’s salmon population. And from UBC Forestry Professor Scott Hinch and Carleton University Professor Steven Cooke comes important research that shows when sockeye salmon on the way to their spawning grounds are forced to “burst swim,” or sprint, through rapids or areas downstream of dams, many of them die from the effort before they reach their destination.

Maintaining healthy diverse oceans and preserving our fish stocks has never faced greater pressures.

Digital Technologies

Imposing the right kind of order on the chaos of data

We are in the midst of a veritable information explosion. In the digital universe, we create, capture and store facts and figures at unprecedented rates on every topic imaginable. It has led to a unique 21st‑century problem: Big Data overload. How can we possibly sift through the massive fog of complex and confounding data and make sense of it?

UBC researchers are developing the field of visual analytics to find the answers. This multidisciplinary field combines research in both computer science and psychology to create systems that turn vast quantities of interrelated information into visual images and patterns that are easily understood by the human brain.

In the same way that bar graphs and pie charts have helped us understand simple relationships between data, visual analytics is finding ways for us to understand relationships within even the most complex data sets.

By imposing the right kind of order on the chaos of data, visual analytics enables us to leverage uniquely human abilities – such as reasoning, problem‑solving, and raw visual intelligence – to analyze the data.

“It’s a marriage of sorts, blending complex computational processes with human cognitive abilities to let us quickly see the hidden gems of knowledge contained within diverse sets of data,” explains UBC Computer Science and Psychology Professor Ronald Rensink.

In 2004, UBC incorporated its pioneering visual analytics research into the Media and Graphic Interdisciplinary Centre (MAGIC), which gathers academics from fields as diverse as music, graphic arts and computer science together under one roof.

Since then, researchers at MAGIC have been creating visual representations of large volumes of complex data, leading to improvements in areas as diverse as aircraft safety, childhood injuries and disaster relief.

These examples are just the beginning. Visual analytics can bring data to life in virtually every sector and topic imaginable, and the university is helping to do just that through the Vancouver Institute for Visual Analytics (VIVA), a collaborative project between UBC, Simon Fraser University and the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

Born out of a series of collaborations with the Boeing Company, VIVA bridges academic theory with real‑life practice by connecting researcher with industry, as well as offering training courses to anyone – students, researchers, government or members of the public – interested in rendering massive, interlinked amounts of data comprehensible through images.

“Visual analytics is like using technology to find a needle in a haystack,” says Rensink. “It allows us to pick out patterns, context and connections from data that would otherwise be too overwhelming on its own. Ultimately, it allows us, often at a glance, to better understand today’s world.”



Breakthrough discoveries change how we understand cancer

Scientists at UBC and the BC Cancer Agency have transformed our understanding of breast cancer and set the stage for the development of new treatments.

It began with a landmark discovery in 2009.

By decoding – for the first time in history – the three billion letters in the DNA sequence of a patient’s metastatic lobular breast cancer and following its evolution over nine years, Dr. Samuel Aparicio, Dr. Marco Marra and Dr. Sohrab Shah were able to show how this complex cancer mutates and spreads.

Aparicio is a professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UBC and heads the BC Cancer Agency’s Department of Molecular Oncology; Marra directs the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre and the Department of Medical Genetics at UBC; and Shah is an associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UBC, a scientist at the BC Cancer Agency, and Canada Research Chair in Computational Cancer Genomics.

The research team they led found that of the 32 mutations in the metastatic tumour, only five could have been present in all the cells of the original tumour, thereby identifying them as the suspected cause of the disease getting started in the first place.

The internationally significant findings were published in the prestigious journal Nature.

“This is a watershed event in our ability to understand the causes of breast cancer and to develop personalized medicines for our patients,” declared Aparicio at the time.

In 2012, international research led by Aparicio at the BC Cancer Agency and Dr. Carlos Caldas at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute was able to classify breast cancer into ten subtypes. They then grouped these subtypes by common genetic features, which correlate with survival, to suggest how treatments could be tailored to treat women with better defined types of breast cancer.

This discovery followed on the heels of Aparicio, Shah and Marra leading the decoding of the most deadly triple‑negative breast cancer. This research similarly discovered new genes that had never before been linked to the disease and showed that breast cancer is an umbrella term for what is really a number of unique diseases.

Aparicio and Shah have since led further research to understand and predict how these complex cancers evolve over time.

The two researchers used Shah’s statistical modelling software, PyClone, to analyze the billions of pieces of genetic data gathered from the tumour samples. Their findings, published in Nature in 2014, provided a map for how certain breast cancers evolve to become drug resistant over time.

“By pinpointing which individual cancer cells are the ‘resilient’ ones that are most likely to have an impact on patient survival,” says Shah, “We are paving the way for drug development and treatment practices that will stop these cellular superbugs from taking over.”

“Because of this research we have a way to identify the cancer ‘super‑cells’ and stay one step ahead of disease progression by tailoring effective treatments to individual patients,” adds Aparicio.

It’s a radical shift in the way we understand cancer – one that is of vital importance to both the global cancer research community and to future drug studies.


Seeing the forest and the trees – and making them stronger

It sounds like something out of science fiction: a wily scientist using state‑of‑the‑art DNA bio‑surveillance technology to defeat an invasive alien species. But voracious forest‑destroying insects such as the Asian gypsy moth and the elm bark beetle are a clear, present and very real danger – and Dr. Richard Hamelin has them in his crosshairs.

Hamelin, a professor in UBC’s Faculty of Forestry, leads a $2.43 million, cross‑Canada research project aimed at protecting Canada’s 400 million hectares of forest and urban trees from devastating pests. It’s just one of several important environmental research initiatives at UBC involving genomics.

“Establishing a link to origin is crucial to prove scientifically the source of pests – and genomics can do that. This means that Canadian officials will have verifiable evidence when managing non‑compliant exporters and trading partners,” says Hamelin, who is leading a team of scientists from UBC, Natural Resources Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency through a partnership with Genome Canada and Genome BC.

Most recently, the team discovered a deadly tree fungus – Mycosphaerella populorum – which uses extra genes to produce a toxin that causes fatal lesions on the leaves, stems and branches of poplar trees.

Other natural resource genomics projects at UBC have included mapping the genomes of the spruce tree and the mountain pine beetle, the insect that has devastated BC’s lodge‑pole pine forests. It marked only the second time in the world that a beetle genome has been sequenced.

There is also the aptly named Adaptree, a UBC‑led initiative led by Dr. Sally Aitken to understand where trees have historically been and understand where they should be in the future. This research is vital to improving provincial seed transfer policies and forest management responses to climate change. How do trees survive drastic changes in climate? How do they make it through year after year – after century – of harsher (or milder) winters? And how do they adapt to environments that are, to say the least, ecologically different?

“We know that those climatic niches are moving way faster than these tree species have historically been able to move,” Aitken says.

While this phenomenon challenges the forestry sector, that same industry – which plants 250 million trees a year in BC – is best positioned to do something about it. With the right information in hand, there is an opportunity to assist the adaptation of forests by relocating the right genomes to the right places in the course of normal business operations.

“We can at least increase diversity,” notes Aitken. “More diversity in the genomes of a population makes it more resilient, and with unpredictable and complex changes taking place, resilience is key to the health of the forest.”

These stories, along with others, can be found on the website of UBC Research and International. To learn more about UBC research, please visit


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please be aware that comments submitted through this form will appear publicly below this article. Comments may also be published in future print issues of Trek magazine.

Comments are moderated, and may take some time to appear.