McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Brian Coombes receives Top 40 Under 40 award

Published: April 28, 2011
Brian Coombes
Brian Coombes, assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences and member of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research

Recognition among your peers is one thing. Recognition as one of 40 people shaping the country’s future is another.

At 37, Brian Coombes is an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences and member of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research. Today he was recognized by The Globe and Mail as a member of the group of Canadians selected for Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 award, an annual recognition presented to Canadians under the age of 40 considered outstanding leaders in their fields.

"It is very humbling to receive this award," says Coombes. "People come to the table from all walks of life. It’s not just scientists who win the top 40 under 40 it’s folks in business, entrepreneurs, public service workers and athletes. It’s everybody. To be recognized among all of these different walks of life is a real honour."

Two McMaster alumni were also among the 40 people announced today. Karen Bakker, who earned a bachelor of arts and science in 1995, is the director of the Program on Water Governance and associate professor at the University of British Columbia. Naman Budhdeo received his bachelor of commerce degree in 1996 and is the founder and CEO of Flightnetwork.com, Canada's second most visited online travel agency.

Coombes’ record is impressive. After graduating in 2002 with a PhD in medical sciences studying the pathogenesis of Chlamydia pneumonia infections, he became a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and Michael Smith Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia’s Michael Smith Laboratories. There he worked with Brett Finlay, a world leader in microbial pathogenesis, training extensively in molecular microbiology and investigating the mechanisms by which Salmonella uses virulence factors to modify the host environment.

In 2006, he moved to the Department of Biochemistry & Biomedical Sciences at McMaster where now he runs an active research program in infectious diseases at the interface of humans, animals and the environment. Among his awards are an Early Research Award from the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, a Most Promising Researcher Merit Award from the Public Health Agency of Canada, a CIHR New Investigator Award, an American Society for Microbiology Young Investigator Award and a Boehringer Ingelheim Young Investigator Award.

"This particular award will bring a lot of recognition to my lab and its members," says Coombes. "In the past five years since the lab has been in operation, we have collaboratively come up with ideas and mapped our strategic directions so this is really a collaborative team effort that actually executes on ideas."

Coombes has had a long-standing relationship with the Public Health Agency of Canada. In fact, his first appointment at McMaster was a joint one. This relationship, he explains, has allowed his lab to understand pathogens of relevance to Canadians, particularly enteric diseases which are causing outbreaks around the globe.

"These are pathogens which are transmitted primarily from domesticated food animals but also can be transmitted through water, so there is a real push to try to understand the safety of our food and water supply," he says. "Through our work we are trying to understand how these organisms cause disease in humans and how they are able to live harmoniously in animals where they don’t necessarily cause disease."

His lab also investigates antibiotic resistance. "If we can understand how bacteria overcome host defences then we can start thinking about novel ways to not only treat, but prevent infections. If we can start interfering with the way bacteria combat host defences and disarm them using different types of small molecules or chemicals, then we can render the bacteria almost harmless within a human to allow the human defence system to overcome it."

His ultimate goal is to understand the dynamics between host and pathogen to come up with new therapeutics for infectious disease and new antibiotic discovery. "Through collaborative work with other scientists in the Institute for Infectious Disease Research, we’ve been developing ways to combine small molecules and chemical entities to come up with new antibiotics."

The Top 40 Crystal Cube award will be presented to Coombes at an awards gala at the Royal York Hotel on May 3. He is also featured in The Globe and Mail.

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