Lowary, Dr. Todd

2015 Science,  Winner

Edmonton scientist improves research by building nationwide research network

For Dr. Todd Lowary, it isn’t difficult to pinpoint a reason to study glycomics.

Glycans, or carbohydrates, are essential components to all cells. In particular, Dr. Lowary is interested in how mycobacteria, a family of bacteria responsible for diseases like leprosy and tuberculosis, use carbohydrates to survive. Research in this area has the potential to lead to new treatments for these diseases. According to the World Health Organization, tuberculosis affects millions of people each year, making it second to HIV/AIDS as the greatest killer worldwide due to a single infectious agent.

But like every scientist new to their field, Dr. Lowary had to overcome several obstacles to develop a better understanding of the disease. The first obstacle involved producing tools that could be used to study the role of mycobacterial glycans.While glycomics played a role in Dr. Lowary’s graduate studies at the University of Alberta in the early 1990s, it was a seminar that sparked his interest in using glycomics to better understand tuberculosis. “My interest came from a seminar over 20 years ago where I got intrigued by the chemical structure of the carbohydrates that this bug produces,” Dr. Lowary says. “I got excited about the possibility that we could use chemistry to solve something or identify better ways of treating tuberculosis.”

Synthesizing a Model

When Dr. Lowary first began his work, there was little understanding of how complex glycans produced by mycobacteria enabled them to survive. Scientists understood these complex carbohydrates existed and their structures, but there was little understanding about how they enabled the organism to grow and live. So Dr. Lowary embarked on a quest to synthesize these glycans, to provide compounds that would enable studies to understand their biological function to be carried out.

Creating these molecules was the first challenge and with these in hand he has worked, often with collaborators, to understand how these bacteria produce the glycans and how the organism uses them to facilitate survival in humans. For example, his work has led to a more in-depth understanding of how the organisms evade the human immune response. Current work also focuses on developing better diagnostics for tuberculosis.

The University of Alberta provided a strong network to further his work in glycomics, as Alberta has been instrumental in making Canada a leader in this field. In particular, Dr. Lowary’s work has been supported by the Alberta Glycomics Centre, a provincially-funded initiative established in 2002, by Professor David Bundle, a previous ASTECH award winner.

More recently, Dr. Lowary became interested in building on the foundation of the Alberta Glycomics Centre to strengthen Canada as a leader in glycomics research and development.

Building GlycoNet

A challenge many scientists face in their day-to-day work is collaborating with others to find tangible applications for their work. While researchers are key to developing novel solutions to important problems, industry provides the fuel for the work to find widespread application.

The opportunity to create better cooperation between industry and researchers inspired Dr. Lowary to spearhead the establishment of the Canadian Glycomics Network (GlycoNet). Dr. Lowary spent the early part of his career working in the United States and Europe, but he returned to Alberta in 2003 because of its supportive community and the then recent establishment of the Alberta Glycomics Centre.

“We have had an incredible support system in Alberta for the last 50 years,” Dr. Lowary says. “Whenever I go to meetings people always know this has been a place that has historically done really great things [in glycomics.] That’s true for all Canada as well, but Alberta in particular has a reputation.” It is this rich history that creates the perfect opportunity to build a strong glycomics network.

GlycoNet is designed to help researchers interact with other groups, both inside academic and in industry and government labs, to further applications of their research. Dr. Lowary says such cross talk is essential for scientists to discover new areas to apply their work.

“Having tunnel vision is never a good thing, and that’s one of the reasons we go to meetings and bring in people to give lectures. You talk about your science and other people give input and through discussions, you learn,” Dr. Lowary says.

“That’s one of the nice things about the Centre and now GlycoNet; it’s bringing people from diverse areas who are interested in a common research theme, who might not have otherwise connected” Dr. Lowary says. “It’s through these interactions that you can really broaden the impact of what the community is doing.”