Sept. 23, 2021

National academy recognizes innovative, entrepreneurial Snyder Institute researchers for excellence in health sciences

Richard Leigh and Gilaad Kaplan named Fellows of Canadian Academy of Health Sciences
Richard Leigh (left) and Gilaad Kaplan
Richard Leigh (left) and Gilaad Kaplan

Two Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases members renowned for their leadership, research, innovations and entrepreneurialism are being honoured by the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences (CAHS) as Fellows.

Dr. Richard Leigh, MD, PhD, senior associate dean for faculty affairs in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) at the University of Calgary, and Dr. Gilaad Kaplan, MD, a professor of medicine in the departments of Medicine and Community Health Sciences in the CSM at UCalgary, are among Fellows chosen from the best and brightest in the health sciences across Canada.

The designation for both comes as the pandemic places undue stress on health care systems and challenges academic and other institutions, making innovations and entrepreneurial advances ever more valuable in a volatile economy.

“As the recent months have been extremely challenging to our health-care system, it is clearer than ever that there is much CAHS and its Fellows can do,” says CAHS President Dr. Christopher Simpson, MD.

Asthma and inflammatory airways disease expert fosters innovation

Leigh is an academic respirologist and clinician-scientist with specific expertise in asthma and inflammatory airways diseases. He is the director of the TAMARATT Lung Suite at the Snyder Institute. Among his many accomplishments, he has established UCalgary as a national and international centre of excellence for asthma research and patient care.

His tenure as academic department head was notable for “innovative leadership initiatives,” says Dr. Jonathan Meddings, dean, Cumming School of Medicine.

With the rise in the use of data science to spark new ways of accomplishing aims, Leigh established a health analytics working group within the department. He promoted research initiatives that encourage the use of data science in clinical care. He encouraged departmental leadership to embrace available data sources to inform patient care, workload measurements and workflow, and physician workforce planning.

Leigh also introduced objective metrics to assess physician deliverables and accountability, which are critical to the sustainability of an alternative funding model of physician compensation, says Meddings.

“Calgary is an entrepreneurial city, and we are fortunate to have a terrific fund development team at the Cumming School of Medicine,” says Leigh. “At UCalgary, we have always exhibited an innovative ‘can do’ philosophy.”

As a result, the CSM has benefited enormously through the generosity of Calgarians, he says.

“We, in turn, need to be accountable to the broader community, and to our benefactors, in metrics that are tangible to them, including how we’re impacting the health of Calgarians and Albertans,” says Leigh, who also championed physician wellness through the development of a peer-support network during his tenure as department head.

The CAHS honour comes as Leigh recognizes that the pandemic “reminds us there is still so much to discover, such as the immunopathology of long-COVID.” He views this CAHS award as peer recognition of his lifelong pursuit of academic scholarship, “in my research career, in my clinical practice of medicine, in my teaching philosophy — and in my role as a medical leader.”

World leader in IBD research nurtures entrepreneurial mindset

Gilaad Kaplan is an internationally renowned gastroenterologist and epidemiologist who is recognized as a world leader in defining the global epidemiology of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), among his other accomplishments.

At a time when issues such as environmental sustainability prompt headlines, Kaplan has made exceptional contributions to understanding the health impacts of pollution as well as making headway in the fight against the pandemic.

“Dr. Kaplan’s research into the effects of air pollution on the gastrointestinal system, linking air pollution to the development of appendicitis, is resulting in a new field of gastrointestinal-environmental health research,” says Meddings. “He is an incredible asset to the Cumming School of Medicine.”

As technology continues to push new frontiers in research and medicine, Kaplan’s research team has created expertise in developing online open access data visualization platforms to allow a wide array of stakeholders to explore epidemiological data.

Entrepreneurism is important in the health sciences and at universities because a single lab or one domain of research will be hard pressed to solve the major health challenges that Canadians face today, says Kaplan.

The SECURE-IBD Registry is the largest database of people with IBD who have tested positive for COVID-19, more than 6,500 individuals across the world. Kaplan is on the international steering committee of the database and has developed an online, open access dashboard that displays data in real time.

“The pandemic has integrated my clinical expertise as a gastroenterologist with my scientific expertise as an epidemiologist, alongside my advocacy through Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, to serve as a source of knowledge to guide individuals with inflammatory bowel disease through the pandemic,” says Kaplan.

Throughout his career, Kaplan has sought out interdisciplinary collaborations to bridge population health with basic and translational science. He was instrumental in securing a licence for The Health Improvement Network (THIN) database, a U.K.-based electronic medical record of more than 11 million people, for health researchers at UCalgary.

Kaplan and his colleagues consequently filed a patent on the use of mirtazapine in treating autoimmune diseases.

“Becoming a CAHS Fellow will allow me to network and collaborate with distinguished colleagues in order to tackle major health science challenges facing Canadians,” says Kaplan. “It is an opportunity to serve Canadians, particularly during these trying times as we navigate through the storm of the pandemic. It is also an opportunity for me to raise awareness and advocacy for the IBD community.”

Richard Leigh is professor of medicine and physiology and pharmacology, and senior associate dean – faculty affairs at the Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary. He is a member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases.

Gilaad Kaplan is professor of medicine in the Departments of Medicine and Community Health Sciences at UCalgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). He is also a member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM.

The Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases is a team of 125 clinician-scientists and basic scientists whose research is impacting and changing the lives of people suffering from infectious disease (bacteria, parasites and viruses like those causing COVID-19), autoimmunity, and chronic inflammatory disease of the lung, gut, liver, kidney, pancreas and skin, such as asthma, diabetes, hepatitis and inflammatory bowel disease. A partnership between the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services, the institute was named in 2008 in honour of Joan Snyder and her parents, whom Ms. Snyder credits for teaching her the value of philanthropy. Visit and follow us @SnyderInstitute.