Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
Nov. 20, 2020
Foundational gift ignites important research at International Microbiome Centre
Seeking a way to make a positive difference in his community after a rewarding career in the oil and gas industry, a semi-retired — but perpetually busy — Lanny Fenwick discovered some of the incredible innovations taking place at the University of Calgary.
Coming from a science background, he was intrigued when mutual contacts connected him to the world of research at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). The opportunity to invest in an area that could improve health in new and unique ways led him to explore the International Microbiome Centre (IMC) — an engine of innovation with multi-disciplinary teams studying the microbiome’s role in immunity and disease.
- Photo above: Lanny Fenwick made a generous donation to the University of Calgary’s Energize campaign to support the International Microbiome Centre at the Cumming School of Medicine through the creation of the Fenwick Microbiome Research Initiative. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
Although no one could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, the novel coronavirus has put a spotlight on infectious disease — one of the many areas in which researchers at the IMC are engaging in world-class studies. Determined to make a difference in the area of chronic diseases, Fenwick didn’t need the current medical crisis to know what an impact his generous philanthropic investment in UCalgary (committed near the end of the Energize campaign) could ultimately have on society.
“Science has always intrigued me, and this was new science,” Fenwick says of the decision to make a substantial donation establishing the Fenwick Microbiome Research Initiative to support ongoing research and education at the IMC. “The early findings from some of the studies shared with me showed there was real potential for new discoveries and for these researchers to create new ways to treat chronic conditions and illnesses from a more natural perspective — by manipulating the microbiome.”
Partnership critical to fueling discoveries to improve health
So far, Fenwick’s partnership with UCalgary has been critical to every facet of the IMC’s research — through hiring and retaining top scientists, bringing in specialized technologies and instruments, and accelerating the launch of new projects that could help prevent chronic diseases before they start.
The advancements from the science he’s supporting have been significant. Dr. Kathy McCoy, PhD, scientific director at the IMC, says Fenwick’s gift has kept research moving forward during the pandemic, including important progress in the microbiome’s role in cancer immunotherapy and how it can help battle infections in the bloodstream.
The discovery of which gut bacteria help our immune system battle cancerous tumours and how they do it may provide a new understanding of why immunotherapy, a treatment that helps amplify the body’s own immune response, works in some cases, but not others. The findings, published in Science, show that combining immunotherapy with specific microbial therapy boosts the immune system’s ability to recognize and attack cancer cells in some melanoma, bladder and colorectal cancers, drastically shrinking tumours in mice.
Findings from another recent study show how gut microbiota and its production of a small molecule called D-lactate in the liver is critical to capturing and killing pathogens (infectious agents that cause disease or illness). This discovery suggests that treatment restoring gut-to-liver delivery of this metabolite could become a precision medicine strategy to protect against the spread of pathogens in the bloodstream, helping to reduce the overwhelming burden of infections in the intensive care unit.
“Mr. Fenwick’s donation has been absolutely critical to providing the continued support needed to ensure innovative microbiome research continues at the IMC and the University of Calgary,” says McCoy. “His interest and enthusiasm in the promise of microbiome research for promoting health and treating disease is both inspiring and humbling.”
Interdisciplinary research environment key component of UCalgary vision
An engine of innovation and interdisciplinary study, the IMC’s unique integration of mass cytometry, genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, gnotobiotics, bioinformatics, biobanking and intravital imaging makes it a key piece of UCalgary’s Unstoppable vision to strengthen the community in uncertain times. Its work within business development alongside industry is also contributing to the next generation of research technologies.
“It’s a privilege to sincerely thank Mr. Fenwick for his belief in our incredible community of scholars and his support of the exceptional work at the International Microbiome Centre," says Dr. Ed McCauley, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Calgary. "Champions like him drive translational research to harness the power of the microbiome. The International Microbiome Centre has helped put Calgary on the map as one of the best places in the world to conduct microbiome research. We’re creating a positive impact on patient outcomes, job creation, talent attraction, technology development and so much more through this remarkable centre.”
As an entrepreneurial spirit himself, Fenwick eagerly digests updates from McCoy that align with his intention to be a part of the solution to the health challenges he’s seen so many face during his life — with chronic diseases like diabetes and Crohn’s and many others that require ongoing medical attention seemingly more prevalent as the years pass.
“I’m fascinated by these connections and I chose to invest in this area of medicine as something that could be pretty impactful to society in general,” says Fenwick, who created the Fenwick Family Foundation as a way to give back. “A lot of positive things have come out of this research already.”
Energized by our philanthropic community, we are creating lasting, positive change — on campus, in our city and beyond — by elevating student experiences, accelerating research outcomes and strengthening community connections.
Kathy McCoy is a professor in the CSM’s Department of Physiology and Pharmacology and member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases. She is the director of the IMC and is also leading the CIHR-funded pan-Canadian microbiome research core called IMPACTT — a “brain trust” of microbiome experts from across the country advancing microbiome research.
Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases
The University of Calgary is uniquely positioned to find solutions to key global challenges. Through the research strategy for Infections, Inflammation, and Chronic Diseases in the Changing Environment (IICD), top scientists lead multidisciplinary teams to understand and prevent the complex factors that threaten our health and economies.
Innovation Week at UCalgary
As part of UCalgary’s partnership with Calgary Economic Development, UCalgary is celebrating Innovation Week YYC, as well as Canadian Innovation Week and Global Entrepreneurship Week. Join UCalgary experts and researchers Nov. 16 to 20 for a week of conversation, inspiration and ideas. Learn how you can get involved.