July 5, 2021

Microbiome researcher Kathy McCoy awarded Killam Memorial Chair

Chair will help Dr. McCoy advance research on the role of the microbiome in regulating health and disease
Kathy McCoy

Dr. Kathy McCoy, PhD, a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine’s Department of Physiology and Pharmacology and member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases, has just been awarded the Killam Memorial Chair for her outstanding work as an internationally recognized leader in microbiome and immunology research.

She is also recognized as a global expert in immunology, host-microbiome interactions and gnotobiotic research (the science and study of animals or other organisms raised in environments free of germs, or those which contain only specifically known germs). She is the founding director of UCalgary’s International Microbiome Centre.

“The Killam Memorial Chair will provide me with the flexibility and security to perform exciting and innovative research over the next five years,” says McCoy. “I hope to explore new questions and generate preliminary data that can be leveraged to apply for additional funds to follow exciting discoveries. I will use this award to address new research questions that are considered high-risk yet high-reward for which funding through traditional channels is more difficult to obtain.”

“Dr. McCoy has made outstanding contributions to the academy through world-class research, extensive knowledge translation activities, and training of the next generation of great researchers,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “She has deepened our understanding of the complex relationship between the microbiome and immune system through her novel, creative approach. She is truly deserving of this prestigious honour, and we are thrilled to name Kathy our Killam Memorial Chair.”

Key research goal

An area McCoy plans to research as part of the Chair is called immune checkpoint blockade therapy, or ICBT. Immunotherapy drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors work by blocking proteins from binding with their partner proteins, allowing the T-cells to kill cancer cells.

ICBT has revolutionized the treatment of many cancers, including melanoma, renal cell carcinoma and non-small cell lung cancer, and has been approved to treat other cancers. But despite the success of ICBT, some cancers show primary resistance to it, and response rates can be low with high variability between patients.

Although a number of factors can play a role in determining responsiveness to ICBT, the microbiome of each individual has emerged as a key factor. Composition of the intestinal microbiome can even predict the effectiveness of ICBT.

“Unfortunately, despite the great success of ICBT, it can also be quite toxic for some. Patients can develop severe immune-related adverse effects following ICBT, with adverse gastrointestinal problems, including colitis, hepatitis, and pancreatitis being among the most common,” says McCoy, who, along with her research team, is working to define the role of the microbiome and microbiome-derived metabolites in regulating the effectiveness of ICBT.

Personalized microbial therapies

“Our ultimate goal is to develop personalized, defined microbial therapies that will promote responsiveness to ICBT in cancer patients.”

McCoy’s achievements and innovative vision for the future are sparking groundbreaking discoveries regarding the role of microbiota and their dynamic interactions with their hosts and other microbes. Such breakthroughs have dramatic influence on how new diagnostic techniques are being engineered, and how our society will approach advancements in ecology, agriculture, and medicine in the future.

“My research focuses on understanding the multiple pathways through which the microbiome interacts and instructs the host immune system, and how this controls immune function, susceptibility to diseases, and responses to therapies. The goal is to understand and explain the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying these interactions, with the ultimate purpose to harness the microbiome to better treat and prevent disease.”

Further avenues of research

In addition to supporting McCoy’s research on ICBT responsiveness in people living with cancer, the Killam Memorial Chair will also allow the microbiome researcher and her laboratory team to examine two more critical areas of study:

  • The role of the maternal and early life microbiome in instructing development and function of the immune system and the impact of early life imprinting later in life; and  
  • Cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying the gut-brain axis and the impact on neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders such as autism spectrum disorder and Parkinson’s disease.

“I am extremely honoured to receive the Killam Memorial Chair,” says McCoy. “To be recognized by one’s peers and community is the ultimate compliment. The quality of research at the University of Calgary is truly world-class, and there are so many highly deserving researchers here. I feel very humbled by receiving this award.”

The microbiome may be the single most important environmental factor underlying the rise in chronic inflammatory disease in the western world, including Canada. However, what constitutes a "normal" microbiome is still not fully understood and is likely to differ between populations from country to country. Canadians likely harbour their own distinct microbiomes, which have been shaped in response to environmental exposures specific to Canada.

With so many challenges remaining in this field of study, the importance of co-ordinating multiple national and international research initiatives that lead to exceptional outcomes in microbiome research cannot be overstated.

“As a microbiome researcher, I believe this award also recognizes the promise of microbiome research and more generally the importance of fundamental and translational biomedical research in Canada,” adds McCoy.

Kathy McCoy is a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine’s Department of Physiology and Pharmacology and member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases. She is the founding director of the International Microbiome Centre at UCalgary 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. (IMPACTT stands for Integrated Microbiome Platforms for Advancing Causation Testing and Translation.)

The Killam Memorial Chair is the University of Calgary’s most prestigious research chair, created through an endowment by Dorothy Killam to attract, recognize, and support the most distinguished scholars. Since 1967, seven distinguished scholars have held UCalgary’s Killam Memorial Chair. The five-year chair was established to support internationally recognized scholars in any discipline of the health, natural, or social sciences or engineering.

The Calvin, Phoebe and Joan Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases was named in 2008 in honour of Joan Snyder and her parents, whom Ms. Snyder credits for teaching her the value of philanthropy. We are a group of more than 125 clinicians, clinician-scientists and basic scientists who are impacting and changing the lives of people suffering from chronic, infectious and inflammatory 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, top scientists lead multidisciplinary teams to understand and prevent the complex factors that threaten our health and economies.