Vancouver surgeon, Dr. Robert Taylor, receives the Order of Canada

Of the 54 people awarded the Order of Canada for 2010, 13 were B.C. residents. Dr. Robert Taylor, a professor at the University of British Columbia, received his for donating time and expertise to developing nations in need.

“I’m really busy,” Dr. Robert Taylor said over the phone when contacted for an interview. “I was just out the door, I didn’t even think I should answer the phone.”

Even when running late, the doctor comes across as apologetic, kind, and sincere. He speaks with a tone that is both calm and articulate, lending a sense that he truly aims to be helpful.

But Taylor is a busy man indeed.

When the Vancouver-based surgeon isn’t overseas helping war torn and struggling nations establish some semblance of proper medical care, he’s at home finding other ways to share his expertise.

Dr. Robert Taylor teaching a hernia repair course in Zambia, 2009. Photo courtesy of CNIS.

Taylor works in the surgery departments of both Vancouver General Hospital and Providence Health Care.

In addition to being a professor at University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine, Taylor lends his services to the Red Cross and the Canadian Network for International Surgery, or CNIS.

A quick glance at the 66-year-old Taylor’s resume is enough to make even the most accomplished of us pause.

His initiatives in Vancouver include the establishment of UBC’s international surgery branch, as well as a colorectal cancer clinic at St. Paul’s hospital.

“At the request of the BC Cancer Agency…I initiated and developed the Anal Dysplasia Clinic at St. Paul’s,” Taylor wrote in his resume.

Since the early 1970s, the doctor has been on a wide array of humanitarian missions. The long list of countries he’s worked in includes Bolivia, Malawi, Uganda, and most recently, Sri Lanka and the Ivory Coast.

Working with the Red Cross in Sri Lanka, Taylor established “a sustainable surgical service in the north to serve the several hundred thousand internally displaced people from the long armed conflict in that region.”

In the Ivory Coast, Taylor also worked with the Red Cross to establish hospitals in war zones, following the announcement of a ceasefire.

Taylor practices stitch work with his students on a rather obedient patient, Zambia 2009. Photo courtesy of CNIS

His work as an ambassador of the Canadian medical profession earned him the Order of Canada in 2010, an award a co-worker said he accepted with humility.

“He was quite shocked when they told him,” Karethe Linaae of CNIS said. Linaae said Taylor was not expecting the award at all, and figured the phone call was to request a reference for someone else.

“He’s an amazing, giving, kind person. Very humble,” she said.

Linaae said Taylor is currently awaiting approval to visit Haiti with a group of Quebec surgeons, where he will work to establish medical facilities and train staff.

She added that he also teaches online surgery courses, allowing doctors in the developing world to continue learning once he’s left.

Newly discovered antibody could lead to ALS vaccine

Photo by Daniel Paquet

Researchers from University of British Columbia’s brain research centre believe they have created an antibody that successfully targets cellular mutations caused by Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The illness, also known as ALS, has been difficult to treat since its discovery in 1869 due to a lack of understanding surrounding its causes.

Biomedical researcher Leslie Grad says the antibodies his team has developed target only the disease-causing proteins, which become mis-folded and spread their mutations throughout the body.

“In our lab we look at ways to stop the protein mis-folding,” Grad said.

“One way to do this is to create molecules called antibodies that specifically recognize diseased forms of the protein.”

The disease affects approximately one in 1000 people, with 80 per cent dying from the disease within two to five years. A disease of the nervous system, ALS alters motor neurons causing paralysis of the limbs, speech, and ultimately respiratory systems.

The guilty protein is known as SOD1 and is found in every cell of the human body. This protein can be affected by over 150 unique mutations, all of which can lead to the disease.

These mutations cause the protein to mis-fold. The researchers believe this disorder can then be transmitted to healthy proteins across cells and neurons.

The actual chemical structure of the protein itself remains unaffected. The disease is instead caused by the way the proteins are folded. The antibodies created by Grad’s team target only these specific mis-folded proteins, while ignoring healthy ones.

“The disease form can be secreted from the cell. Experiments have shown how diseased proteins impose their will on healthy ones,” Grad said.

According to him, SOD1 mutations are responsible for roughly two per cent of ALS cases. The team is also working to explore a general SOD1 connection in all instances of the disease, a topic he describes as “highly controversial” at this time.

Should Grad’s suspicions that SOD1 be linked to other forms of the disease prove valid, a treatment for most forms of the disease could be a possibility.

“We are in the process of humanizing the antibodies,” Grad said.

The researchers hope to make an antibody that the human body will not reject as a foreign agent, leading to possible preventative treatments for the disease.

“A human version of the antibody could essentially be taken as a vaccine,” added Grad.

The first thing researchers need to do, before they can offer their visions of a possible cure or vaccine, is demonstrate how the disease works.

The team is currently working on two studies. Their first aim is to show how the mutated proteins spread throughout a cell by influencing other healthy proteins to mis-fold.

Grad said the second study aims to show how these mutations can be transmitted outside the cell to healthy parts of the body, ultimately affecting our motor neurons and causing the disease.

It is the hope of the researchers that their antibody will block the transmission of these mutations, leading to a vaccine that could be administered in order to prevent ALS from developing.

For the immediate future, however, ALS will remain a vicious and uncontrollable killer.

“Unfortunately, ALS is a death-sentence,” said Grad. “A quick death-sentence.”