Santamaria, Dr. Pere

2013 Winner: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Technology

Dr. Pere Santamaria has spent over 20 years developing a revolutionary therapy that will change the outcomes of devastating diseases like juvenile diabetes and multiple sclerosis – diseases for which no effective cure exists.

The more than 80 autoimmune diseases that affect mankind are chronic, debilitating and sometimes fatal conditions that affect millions of Canadians. The diseases come at a cost of more than $10 billion per year in Canada; and Alberta has among the highest incidence of autoimmune diseases in the world.

These are not just facts and statistics to Dr. Santamaria, Professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology & Infectious Diseases at the University of Calgary.

“When I was 15, I got very sick with a relatively rare autoimmune disease,” he recalls. “My parents had to take me to several different specialists. It took a year to find out what I had.”

Dr. Santamaria spent months in the hospital and saw his young, energetic life cut from under him first by the disease and then by high doses of general immune suppressants. It was that experience that influenced his decision as an 18-year old to choose a career in medicine; and to choose immunology for his PhD focus.

“Now, my research affords me the opportunity to help patients affected by the same kind of disease I experienced,” says Dr. Santamaria.

Dedicated and determined, he led his research team in the long process of discovery while mentoring young scientists, including postdoctoral fellows and graduate students to carry on the work. They discovered a therapeutic type 1 diabetes nanomedicine that triggers the expansion, in vivo, of disease-specific suppressor white blood cells. These cells then go on to completely stop other immune cells from destroying the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, re-setting the immune system to its normal state.

Many consider this breakthrough as important as the discovery of insulin. The therapeutic nanomedicine Dr. Santamaria’s team discovered and is developing holds enormous promise for people who suffer from any autoimmune disease. Parvus Therapeutics Inc., a University of Calgary spin-off company of which he is scientific founder and Chief Scientific Officer, is leading the effort to commercialize the therapy and already holds several patents.

“We’ve developed a therapeutic platform that did not exist before,” Dr. Santamaria says. “The now proven success of this therapeutic approach in different models of autoimmune disease illustrates that this platform has the potential to create an explosion that will change the way medicines are built to treat autoimmune disease and potentially other diseases, like cancer.”

Biotechnology and nanotechnology are acknowledged as two of the new high-growth industries with enormous commercial potential. Parvus is quickly becoming recognized as world leader in the development of nanomedicines for the treatment of autoimmune disease.

“The realization that I have something in my hands that can change medicine has changed the way I approach my scientific career”, Dr. Santamaria says. “I remind myself every day that it is my responsibility to make the best effort I can to get this medicine to the patients who need it. This responsibility fuels my passion and gives meaning to my life as a scientist.”