Renowned Vancouver geneticist Michael Hayden wins

prestigious 2011 Canada Gairdner Wightman Award


Media Release | Mar. 23, 2011


Michael Hayden


A B.C. researcher whose dogged pursuit of a treatment and cure for Huntington's disease has ignited hope around the world is being honoured for his efforts with Canada's top medical award. Michael Hayden, a physician and geneticist who is the world's most cited author on Huntington's disease, has won the 2011 Canada Gairdner Wightman Award for his groundbreaking contributions to medical science.


The Canada Gairdner Wightman Award, worth $100,000, is given annually to a Canadian for leadership in medical science throughout their career. Hayden, a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia and director and senior scientist at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics at the Child & Family Research Institute, was selected for his leadership in medical genetics, entrepreneurship and humanitarianism.


"This is totally thrilling, and in particular, the award actually becomes even more significant when I think about those who preceded me and the heritage that they left," Dr. Hayden, who is based in Vancouver, said in an interview.


"As a physician scientist, to whom chance has given unusual opportunities, I am deeply aware of the degree to which my own success today is built upon the work, cooperation and struggles of others."


"We are extremely proud of Dr. Hayden and his enormous achievements and contributions to bettering the lives of people around the world through medical research," says UBC President Stephen Toope. "His tenacity, resourcefulness and generosity of spirit are well known to those who have the good fortune of working with him, and will now be further celebrated through the Wightman Award."


Dr. Hayden has made important discoveries about how Huntington's disease develops and created the world's first predictive test for it - the first such test for any genetic disorder. Although he is best known for his research on the inherited neurodegenerative disorder, it only scratches the surface of Dr. Hayden's list of accomplishments.


He is also working on developing simple tests to identify patients who would suffer serious side effects from certain medications. In addition, Dr. Hayden has discovered genes associated with some rare conditions, findings that are leading to new levels of understanding about, and possible new treatments for, common conditions including Alzheimer's disease and chronic pain.


"I am hard pressed to imagine anyone else more deserving of this honour than Dr. Hayden," says Prof. Max Cynader, director of the Brain Research Centre at UBC and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute and a frequent collaborator of Hayden's. ""Michael's been a real leader in bringing advances in science to people. His work with rare genetic diseases not only addresses the needs of underserved individuals but has wide-reaching implications for other conditions that affect millions of people world-wide."


Dr. Hayden, Canada Research Chair in human genetics and molecular medicine at the University of British Columbia, has established an unparalleled reputation in the medical community for identifying genes associated with rare conditions such as congenital insensitivity to pain and Tangier disease, a genetic condition characterized by low levels of good cholesterol in the blood.


By studying people with extremely rare conditions, such as those born without the ability to feel pain, Dr. Hayden has been able to home in on genetic variants unique to those individuals, enabling understanding of how pain sensitivity, and other functions, are regulated. In fact, hope is building that Dr. Hayden's pain research will soon yield a new drug. By identifying the mutated gene that leads to congenital insensitivity to pain, Dr. Hayden and colleagues have developed a drug that can target that gene to stop pain. If successful, the drug could prove a viable alternative to powerful opioids, which can lead to addiction and serious side effects. The drug is in human clinical trials, Dr. Hayden said.


Dr. Hayden, who makes a point of getting his work out of the ivory tower, has helped found three biotechnology companies. "For me, making the discovery is really not sufficient," Dr. Hayden said. "I'm committed to seeing in whatever form it takes... to translate [discoveries] into something of meaning for patients."


Dr. Hayden is also involved in charitable work, particularly in his native South Africa, where he helped establish a youth centre for those affected by HIV and AIDS or at risk of contracting the disease.


Dr. Hayden, who is married and has four grown children, said he is looking forward to the chance to continue to contribute to the community as a Gairdner winner by speaking to young people considering careers in science or medicine. "Just as I was moved by certain people very early in my career, I have this opportunity and responsibility to talk to young people at critical stages of their lives," he said.


The Wightman Award follows a series of other major honours Hayden has received so far in his career, including appointments to the Order of Canada and Order of British Columbia, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research's Health Researcher of the Year award in 2008, LifeSciences BC's Genome BC Award for Scientific Excellence, and the Prix Gailen Canada (Research).

Created in 1959, the Gairdner Awards are Canada's only globally known and respected international biomedical prizes. Nineteen of the last 26 Nobel Prizes in medicine or physiology in the past 10 years have gone to past Gairdner recipients. Prior to Hayden, the only British Columbian to receive a Gairdner Award was the late UBC Chemistry Prof. Michael Smith, who won the 1986 Gairdner Foundation International Award and went on to win the 1993 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.


Established in 1976 in honour of K.J.R. Wightman, a Toronto physician and the second president of the Gairdner Foundation, the Wightman Award is given to a Canadian who has demonstrated outstanding leadership in medicine and medical science. Hayden is the 15th recipient of the prestigious award and the first British Columbian to be bestowed this honour.


The 2011 Gairdner awards recognized seven researchers from around the world for their discoveries: five for their significant contributions to medical science. The awards will be presented in October at a dinner in Toronto. Winners will also be honoured in their home countries and participate in lectures and symposiums with students and researchers across Canada this fall.