Belgian wins Wright honour

February 05, 2004, vol. 29, no. 3
By Stuart Colcleugh

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Peter Mombaerts initially trained for a career in immunology. But once he got a whiff of the mysteries surrounding the workings of the olfactory system he was hooked.

In the ensuing decade, the Belgian neurobiologist has become an internationally renowned expert in the biology of detecting smell. SFU recently recognized Mombaerts' accomplishments with the 2003 Frank Allison Linville R.H Wright award for outstanding achievement in olfactory research.

“It's a tremendous honour and a highly prestigious accomplishment in our field,” says professor Mombaerts, head of the laboratory of developmental biology at the Rockefeller University in New York. “Plus I'm very happy to be spending a week in Vancouver.”

Past winners of the award are among the world's leading olfactory researchers. They include University of Washington neurophysiologist Linda Buck in 1996, whose work in identifying a family of genes that form the receptors which allow organisms to sense odours inspired Mombaerts to enter the field.

“It was love at first sight when I read her research,” says Mombaerts, who presented several public lectures and research seminars at SFU and UBC during a one-week visit at the end of January.

Mombaerts' work delves into how the nose detects thousands of odors and signals the brain. Using genetically engineered mice, he investigates how, during development, smell-sensitive nerve cells find their correct targets in the brain. He also studies the regulation of genes that contain the instructions for making and controlling the nerves used to smell.

The annual $30,000 award was established in 1984 by Linville to recognize B.C. chemist Robert Wright, whose research contributed significantly to understanding the sense of smell.

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