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Past Winner
2020 NSERC John C. Polanyi Award

NSERC John C. Polanyi Award

NSERC John C. Polanyi Award

Department of Biochemistry

University of Toronto

Rising rates of antibiotic resistance threaten to topple our medical system. Chemotherapy, transplants and simple surgeries will all become impossible if we canít prevent infections from taking hold. Karen Maxwell is searching for the next great medical breakthrough, and it might be hiding right underneath our feet.

Maxwell studies bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria. The University of Toronto biochemist leads a team studying the soil-dwelling bacteria, Streptomyces, to discover exactly how it fends off attacking phages. Bacteria have immune systems just like humans, and studying how they protect themselves against infection could reveal biological systems that can be adapted into highly effective treatments, just like the now-famous CRISPR-Cas system that is widely used for gene editing. Maxwell and her team discovered that Streptomyces produces molecules that stop viruses in their tracks and prevent fast replication. This breakthrough not only reveals a new discovery about bacterial biology, but it also opens up a new way to screen for drugs that could be useful for the treatment of human cancers and viral infections.

In recognition of her groundbreaking discovery and ongoing contributions to the field of biochemistry, Karen Maxwell is the winner of the 2020 John C. Polanyi Award.

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