In late 1921 and early 1922, biochemistry professor and alumnus James Collip played a key role in discovering insulin. He refined the crude pancreatic extract obtained by Frederick Banting, Charles Best, and John Macleod so it could be used in humans. U of A researchers picked up Collip’s torch and in the 1990s created the revolutionary Edmonton Protocol, a method of implanting pancreatic cells that temporarily enables severe Type 1 diabetics to stop taking insulin. More recently, scientists developed an “under the skin” islet transplantation technique—an evolution of the Edmonton Protocol that offers less risk and greater patient benefit, and holds potential for regenerative medicine beyond diabetes.
A legacy of microbiology excellence at the U of A is headlined by Lorne Tyrrell’s 1991 formulation of the first life-saving antiviral therapy for hepatitis B. In 2010, Tyrrell became the inaugural director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, which was made possible by a $25-million gift from the Li Ka Shing (Canada) Foundation. Researchers at the institute include Michael Houghton, who co-led the discovery of the hepatitis C virus in 1989 and is now testing a vaccine.
A new U of A designed medical device will keep organs warm and supplied with oxygen—as if they were still in the body—so they are viable for transplant longer. The device also enables better resuscitation of dysfunctional organs, all of which has the potential to double or triple the number of available donor organs worldwide.
Food and Agriculture
Nutritional Canadian crops like canola and flax may soon have cancer fighting benefits too. U of A crop researchers isolated three genes from pomegranates and incorporated them into oilseed crops by adding a polyunsaturated fatty acid found to help slow the growth of skin, prostate, and breast cancer cells.
U of A researchers are examining how genetic improvements in cattle could affect production, profitability and greenhouse gas emissions as well as feeding, drinking, and other methane production parameters. Researchers believe breeding for lower methane production and low residual feed could reduce methane emissions by up to 45 per cent.
The U of A, along with local and German partners, designed a bio-refinery to turn agricultural waste into energy. The team is currently designing and prototyping a bioreactor that creates biodiesel from algae, treated waste, and carbon dioxide.
Science and Technology
With U of A researchers having already solved checkers and heads-up limit Texas hold ‘em, a group of U of A computing science grads working at one of the world’s leading AI research companies, Google DeepMind, developed the first computer Go program capable of professional-level play. The U of A’s significant AI expertise prompted DeepMind to open its first international research lab in Edmonton.
A U of A forestry researcher found a new clue in the fight against the invasive mountain pine beetle that has ravaged entire pine forests in western North America over the last decade. The research found that the pine tree’s own chemistry contains chemicals toxic to the beetles. This finding could lead to breeding lodge pole seedlings to survive pine beetle attacks.
Early this year the U of A became the new home of the Canadian Ice Core Archive, an invaluable source of information on past climate change and the circulation of pollutants through the Earth’s atmosphere. There are more than 1.7 kilometres of core samples in the collection, representing at least 10,000 years of ice accumulation. In some cases the cores include remnants of the last ice age.
Energy, the Environment, and Climate Change
In the 1920s, researcher Karl Clark devised the technique for liberating the 175 billion barrels of oil locked up in Alberta’s oilsands. Today, more than 1,000 U of A researchers collaborate on the oilsands and its environmental impact, looking at carbon-capture sequestration, deep geothermal energy, emission reduction, land reclamation, and water conservation.
Biological Sciences researcher Keith Tierney showed that migratory fish can detect oilsands process-affected water and will leave an area with no long- term negative effects on their senses.
U of A ecologists led a review of lake studies conducted in Europe and North America, which showed that controlling phosphorus alone will reduce algae blooms in lakes. This is good news for municipalities because controlling phosphorus input into lakes is far less expensive than controlling nitrogen.