The quest to understand the inner workings of some of nature’s most common molecules carbohydrates has led Stephen Withers to breakthroughs that have opened new doors for treating various diseases and introduced wide-ranging new research techniques. The University of British Columbia bio-organic chemist is one of the world’s top experts in how carbohydrates, also known simply as sugars, perform a host of biological functions that include regulating metabolism, storing energy and providing structural support for cell walls. His achievements have made him one of the finalists for the 2009 Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering.
Many of those functions rely on enzymes specialised protein catalysts that are typically structured to either form or break down one type of carbohydrate. Dr. Withers’ most prominent discoveries have centred on revealing how those enzymes work, in some cases overturning decades of thinking and rewriting portions of textbooks.
He has also pioneered faster and greener techniques and research tools to create new types of carbohydrates and new enzymes. Those techniques include patented technology for enzymes that are engineered to efficiently synthesize certain sugars, as well as high-throughput screens that can analyze the potential usefulness of up to a million different synthetic enzymes per hour.
By shedding light on biological processes, Dr. Withers has made it easier to design new drugs that can react or inhibit reactions, with the specific complex sugar that makes up a cell wall. Among his achievements is an inhibitor that shows great promise in preventing the influenza virus from using its own enzymes to spread through the body. Improved treatments for diabetes and other diseases are also possible.