Killiam Prize awarded to distinguished U of M professor

Last month U of M distinguished professor Dr. Frank Plummer was named a recipient of the Killiam Prize in Health Sciences, one of the highest honours in Canada. Administered by the Canada Council of the Arts, the prize was created to recognize the country’s best and most globally-reaching research contributions.

Joseph Rotman, chair of the Canada Council remarked that this year’s five winners were those who “have boldly and consistently pushed the boundaries of our understanding of the world.”

In an interview with the Gradzette, Plummer referred to the award as a huge honour.

“It’s a very special feeling to be a part of that,” said Plummer.

A graduate of the U of M, Plummer’s work in health science is recognized around the world. In March, Plummer concluded his 14-year-long stint as the Scientific Director General of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory located in Winnipeg, and he remains the Chief Science Officer of the Public Health Agency of Canada.

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Abroad, Plummer is a consultant for the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and the governments of Lesotho, India, and Kenya. He also advised the United State’s National Academy of Sciences, and was elected to the American Society of Clinical Investigation and the Association of American Physicians.

Another notable endeavour is Plummer’s co-founding of the top infectious disease research initiative in sub-Saharan Africa, the University of Manitoba-University of Nairobi Collaborative Research Program. Today the program includes collaborative efforts from the University of Ghent, the Tropical Diseases Institute of Antwerp, the University of Toronto, Oxford University, and the University of Washington.

“Tens of millions of people are infected with HIV [and] only a portion have access to treatment, either because the drugs aren’t there or they’re too expensive [ . . . ] so it remains a big, big problem [that can] lead to epidemics like tuberculosis and [other] social problems – [which is] particularly true in Africa.”

Presently, Plummer’s current research looks at differential susceptibility to HIV and why some people get infected quickly, while others don’t get infected at all. The end goal of his work is the hopeful creation of a preventative vaccine.

Plummer’s earlier research showed that since the virus was present in breast milk, it could be transferred from a breastfeeding mother to her child. Oral and hormonal contraceptives can also lead to a higher susceptibility, while male circumcision actually correlated with a lower virus transmission rate. These discoveries have provided new ways to educate the populace when it comes to preventing further cases of HIV.

Dating back to 1984, Plummer’s work has also been credited with changing the public’s opinion of the virus. It is no longer considered to be present exclusively in male-homosexuals or transmitted through blood-borne infections alone.

Plummer adds that originally the subject of the disease was much more “deeply hidden by individuals and highly stigmatized.”

“Our work has helped to improve that [though], there’s still a fair bit around.”

Most notably, Plummer’s research also saw him as the first to discover that certain populations in Nairobi could have a genetic resistance to the HIV-1 virus strain. This is particularly important because it was found, following Plummer’s suspicions, that the population was also becoming infected with multiple more virulent subtypes of the virus.

“The virus is a highly mutable virus; mutations occur at extremely high rates,” said Plummer.

The possibility of an even deadlier version of the disease is important for researchers to be aware of because it informs them of the possible need to design a drug to not only fight HIV-1, but also its mutations as well. If a vaccine can be derived from Plummer’s research it is estimated that it could save billions in social costs and healthcare dollars, as well as millions of lives across the world.

When asked if he had anything else to share with the Gradzette, Plummer mentioned that he wanted to thank the University of Manitoba for allowing him to do this work, and the government of Canada for funding the projects.

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