Branda's fellowship allows prostate study

April 07, 2005, vol. 32, no. 7
By Carol Thorbes

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His ability to shift shapes sounds like the stuff of science fiction. In real science, though, Neil Branda's cutting edge ability to manipulate molecules has made him the first researcher at Simon Fraser University to earn a Steacie Fellowship - one of Canada's premier science and engineering prizes.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) awards only six of the fellowships nationally. They go to outstanding Canadian university scientists or engineers whose research has earned them an international reputation early in their careers.

Branda's fellowship has earned him an $114,000 annual supplement for two years to top up a five-year, $60,500 annual NSERC Discovery grant, which is nearing expiration. “This award provides me with a unique opportunity to devote the next two years of my life to exploring how molecular manipulation can benefit health sciences, specifically drug delivery in treating prostate cancer,” says Branda.

Within 11 years of earning his doctorate, Branda has become a Canada Research Chair in materials science and director of molecular systems for SFU's new research centre, 4D Labs. He has learned how to reversibly change the shape, structure and function of molecules - the building blocks of life - on command, and use colour to signal their change. In collaboration with other researchers at SFU and Vancouver General Hospital, Branda is preparing to do tissue experiments. They will identify how light, electricity, and other environmental stimuli can trigger structural changes in molecules and influence their interaction.

“In biology, molecular shape is everything,” says Branda. “Molecular interaction is based on complementary shapes that fit together like a lock and key system. If we can change and control the shape of molecules then we can pre-program molecular interactions to better deliver drugs to a targeted area in the human body. Ultimately, our goal would be to deactivate or alter disease producing molecular interactions.”

“When I recruited Neil four years ago, I believed he was an individual of high enough calibre to secure the Steacie,” says Mario Pinto, VP-research. “The recipe for success at SFU is having the foresight and courage to recruit aggressively individuals more innovative than ourselves, and Neil is such a person.”

The Steacie fellowships are named in honour of Edgar Steacie, a physical chemist and National Research Council president from 1952 to 1962. The awards ($180,000 over two years or $60,000 for Canada Research Chair recipients) are coveted for their prestige and their ability to leverage more funding. Steacie awards enable universities to hire teaching and administrative relief so that the recipients can focus on their research.

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