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NSERC Prizes 2020: Karen Maxwell

Department of Biochemistry
University of Toronto


Video name

NSERC Prizes 2020: Karen Maxwell


NSERC Communications



Release date

February 15, 2021


Rising rates of antibiotic resistance threaten to topple our medical system. Chemotherapy, transplants and simple surgeries will all become impossible if we canít prevent infections from taking hold. Karen Maxwell is searching for the next great medical breakthrough, and it might be hiding right underneath our feet.

Maxwell studies bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria. The University of Toronto biochemist leads a team studying the soil-dwelling bacteria, Streptomyces, to discover exactly how it fends off attacking phages. Bacteria have immune systems just like humans, and studying how they protect themselves against infection could reveal biological systems that can be adapted into highly effective treatments, just like the now-famous CRISPR-Cas system that is widely used for gene editing. Maxwell and her team discovered that Streptomyces produces molecules that stop viruses in their tracks and prevent fast replication. This breakthrough not only reveals a new discovery about bacterial biology, but it also opens up a new way to screen for drugs that could be useful for the treatment of human cancers and viral infections.

In recognition of her groundbreaking discovery and ongoing contributions to the field of biochemistry, Karen Maxwell is the winner of the 2020 John C. Polanyi Award.

Karen Maxwell

In my lab we research a group of viruses that specifically infect bacteria and these are known as bacteriophages or phages.

So they are natural predators of bacteria and we can use them to treat human infections and there has been a recent resurgence in the interest in phage research due to rising rates of antibiotic resistance.

Itís a huge problem, all of the modern medicine will fall apart if we canít treat infections, if we we wonít be able to do transplants or give people chemotherapy or even simple surgeries could become life-threatening.

So bacteria can protect themselves from viruses using immune systems, so rather like what we have. People studying how these viruses that infect and kill bacteria, how bacteria protect themselves actually discovered CRISPR-Cas and we now have figured out how to take that out of bacteria, the bacterial immune system and use it to edit genes in any organism.

And that system would not have ever been discovered without fundamental research going on into bacteria and these viruses that infect them. I think there are a whole host of other systems that are likely found in bacteria that they are using to protect themselves from phages and they are waiting to be discovered.

Itís an amazing career and you know I try and impart that excitement for science on my students. I love doing research, I canít imagine doing anything else. Itís the excitement of discovering new biology.