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Past Winner
2001 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Ben Koop

Molecular Biology

University of Victoria

Dr. Ben Koop's favourite "families" are complex mixes that leave him wondering who's the parent and who's the child. Not that these families are necessarily dysfunctional. It's that they're all genes. And Dr. Koop is the family genealogist.

The familial genetic diversity that the University of Victoria molecular biologist is discovering has led to insights on everything from better ways to manage British Columbia's wildlife to potential cancer therapies.

It's groundbreaking science for which Dr. Koop is receiving a 2001 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Steacie Fellowship – one of Canada's premier science and engineering prizes.

How does a researcher deal with topics as diverse as the genes of the human immune system and the evolution of deep-sea snails?

"The common thread in all my research is the study of molecular evolution," says Dr. Koop, who originally hails from Fort St. John, B.C. "When you look at the evolution of genes, you can look at how genes have evolved independently in one species, but also how genes evolved in different species."

"For Dr. Koop, the human immune system provides an excellent point of focus for the study of the evolution of a "family" of related genes.

"The reason the immune system works as well as it does is because there are so many genes that have duplicated and specialized to identify the vast array of foreign particles that can invade our bodies," Dr. Koop says.

It's also an area of enormous practical medical value. Understanding the basic mechanisms of autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and cancers, can be used to develop potential therapies.

Dr. Koop's success in this quickly developing, information-intensive field is fuelled by his strong technical skills. In 1996, he collaborated in documenting what was then the largest human genome sequence, a segment of the human beta T-cell, a key part of the immune system.

As a Steacie Fellow, this eclectic thinker will continue research to characterize a highly gene rich, yet "fragile" area – prone to breaking and recombining – of the human genome known as 7q22. The region's specific genetic properties include a possible tumour suppressor gene.

It's also an area that's attractive to Dr. Koop because it involves the kind of diverse gene families that belie simple answers.

"Now that the human genome has been roughly mapped, the real future in genetics research is to determine how genes interact in thousands of ways in a synergistic manner to create an organ or even thought," says Dr. Koop.