From comics to cell chaperones

Gairdner award laureate visits Queen’s on Tuesday

Ask Kazutoshi Mori, one of the laureates of this year’s Canada Gairdner International Award for biomedical research, and he’ll tell you comic superheroes inspired his career in biophysics.

“As a child, I liked to read comics,” he said to an audience of about 40 students and faculty at Queen’s Cancer Research Institute on Tuesday.

He pulled up an image of The Mighty Atom, a well-known Japanese manga character.

“This is what made me want to be a scientist,” he said.

Mori, a professor in the biophysics department at Kyoto University in Japan, is one of seven laureates of Canada’s only major international scientific prize.

Founded in 1959, the award is given annually to a selection of top researchers around the world whose work contributes to improving the quality of human life. More than 20 Gairdner laureates also won Nobel Prizes.

Recipients are awarded $100,000 and are invited to collect their prize at a gala in Toronto.

The laureates will also give presentations in high schools and universities across Canada to celebrate the prize’s 50th anniversary.

Ronald Pearlman, Gairdner Award medical advisory board member, said the prize’s mandate goes beyond recognizing prominent researchers to educating students.

“The award aims to build the culture of science in Canada,” he said. “It provides our next generation of scientists with exposure to the passion, commitment, challenge and rewards of these researchers.”

Mori’s research focuses on protein folding and how it operates for optimal cell function. Turning DNA’s code into proteins is how genomic information is synthesized: genes provide the recipe for the proteins we rely on to perform functions in the body.

But as Mori said, a protein’s function depends on its shape.

“All proteins need a unique structure to have their function,” he said. “Most proteins get correctly folded into shape with the help of molecular chaperones. This is like quality control.”

If there are errors in the folding process, health problems can result, he said.

“Misfolding can lead to stress in the body,” he said. “For instance, if insulin is unfolded, this can lead to diabetes—so it’s important to maintain the quality of protein.”

Mori spoke about the importance of perseverance in his career path and life in general.

“Life is like a double helix,” he said. “It’s winding, but if you look up, you may eventually reach your goal.”

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