Dr. Volker Gerdts (DVM, PhD) is among five USask researchers recognized by the provincial funding agency as part of its annual Santé Awards honouring health research excellence in Saskatchewan. (Photo: Submitted)

Leaders in discovery: five USask researchers honoured with top provincial health awards

Dr. Volker Gerdts (DVM, PhD), director and CEO of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) and professor in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), has been recognized with an Achievement Award by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF).

“Dr. Gerdts’ scientific and leadership accomplishments throughout his illustrious career make him most deserving of this award and recognition. We are grateful for his leadership of VIDO, particularly during the challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic. He was able to grow and strengthen Canada’s pandemic response and was an integral part in creating Canada’s Centre for Pandemic Research,” said USask Vice-President Research Baljit Singh. “We are grateful for his ongoing commitment to our One Health Signature Area of Research and for inspiring the next generation of scientific leaders.”

Beyond his impressive professional achievements of publications and citations, Gerdts has been a mentor and leader in One Health, which recognizes the integral connections between human, animal, and environmental health. At the institutional level, he has been a champion for One Health as a signature area of research at USask. On the international stage, he co-led the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)-funded Integrated Training Program in Infectious Diseases, Food Safety and Public Policy, training more than 200 young researchers from 15 countries.

“This award is recognition of the many colleagues and collaborators I have worked with over the years, including an outstanding group of individuals here at VIDO,” said Gerdts. “I am excited to continue to develop solutions for emerging diseases of humans and animals. The support from SHRF and other funders over the years has helped to make this vision reality.”

With 91 grants totaling more than $117 million as principal investigator, more than $79 million as co-applicant and over $10 million in contract research, Gerdts has led the development of several vaccines and novel adjuvants—ingredients that help create a stronger immune response—for people and animals.

His work helped to develop a universal protocol for vaccination of pregnant women to improve the health of newborn babies, and as a result, pregnant women now routinely receive the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine to protect their newborns against the disease. Gerdts’ research focusing on the fetal immune system development was published in Nature Medicine, and his work on a single-immunization vaccine platform for neonates continues with research into a vaccine for pertussis and respiratory syncytial (RSV), which is undergoing production optimization so it can be ready for production in VIDO’s manufacturing facility and used in human clinical trials.

Under his leadership VIDO has experienced enormous growth, including the completion of its vaccine manufacturing facility that strengthens Canada’s production capacity, positioning VIDO as Canada’s Centre for Pandemic Research. He has also played an integral role in drawing top talent from around the globe to work and live in Saskatchewan, while at the same time elevating the province’s scientific reputation.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Gerdts has demonstrated creative thinking and a keen ability to successfully bring together funders and interdisciplinary collaborators. His over 250 media interviews and presentations about COVID-19 are examples of his skills as a trusted scientific communicator.

Gerdts is among five USask researchers recognized by the provincial funding agency as part of its annual Santé Awards honouring health research excellence in Saskatchewan.

“We are proud of our researchers who have received these prestigious awards,” said Singh. “They are confronting the world’s greatest challenges head on through creativity and collaboration. Their collective impact includes discoveries for improved mental health and wellness, hope for new treatments for drug-resistant infections, and the expertise that will influence how our decision-makers will shape an accessible and culturally responsive healthcare system for the people of Saskatchewan.”

Early Career Award

Dr. Lloyd Balbuena (PhD), associate professor in the department of psychiatry in USask’s College of Medicine, has been recognized with an Early Career Award for his work since receiving SHRF’s Establishment Grant in 2017. His project, titled Neuroticism and Mood Instability as Suicide Prevention Targets, aims to identify predictors of suicide in the general population and in a sample of patients who experienced suicidal ideation.

In general population data from the United Kingdom (U.K.) analyzed by his team, the researchers found the personality trait neuroticism predicted suicide. Daily cigarette smoking was also associated with suicide in the general populations of U.K. and Norway, but that’s not to say it is a cause. In a clinical sample of Saskatchewan patients, Balbuena’s team found that suicidal ideas fluctuate, meaning that patients who visit emergency rooms for suicidal ideation and are discharged may again become suicidal.

While suicide rates remain high, Balbuena feels impactful suicide research can identify a specific modifiable factor that can save lives.

“I find fulfilment as a participant in the quest to understand suicide. I consider myself a marathon runner who does his best even with the knowledge that he will not finish first,” he said.

In his current work, Balbuena is pursuing the smoking-suicide link by trying to estimate how much genes and environment contribute to smoking behaviour, and is studying inflammation as a potential mechanism that links cigarette smoking to suicide.  

Excellence Awards

Three USask College of Medicine researchers and their teams were recognized with Excellence Awards for having the top-ranked applications, as determined by committees of their peers, in their respective funding competitions.

Dr. Jessica Sheldon (PhD) was recognized for her project that seeks to understand how histamine, most known for its function in allergies, can influence infection, specifically by a multidrug resistant bacterium called Acinetobacter baumannii. Her project aims to reveal avenues for using antihistamine-based therapeutics as a new potential treatment.

Dr. Ivar Mendez (MD, PhD), working with a highly experienced and nationally recognized research team, was recognized for the team’s project to develop an actionable framework that will provide a roadmap for the Ministry of Health to establish an integrated patient-centred virtual care service in Saskatchewan.

Dr. Stuart Skinner (MD) and the Wellness Wheel team are recognized for their work with addictions care. The project has trained and certified several peer support workers in Saskatoon, Regina, and on-reserve to better support people with addictions across Saskatchewan. The project aims to demonstrate the value and impact of a formal peer mentorship program as a key component of culturally responsive addictions care. The team will also develop a plan for the full integration of peer mentorship into the health care system.