Oct. 30, 2019

Award recognizes ‘a lifetime of work’ studying immune cells in the brain

Wee Yong receives 2019-2020 Killam Research Excellence Award
Wee Yong receives Killam Award
Wee Yong receives Killam Award

Dr. Wee Yong, PhD, an internationally recognized neuroimmunologist who has advanced the  understanding of and treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS), has been awarded the 2019-2020 Killam Research Excellence Award.

“It's a great honour and I'm truly appreciative of the recognition,” says Yong, the head of Translational Neuroscience in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the Cumming School of Medicine, and co-lead of UCalgary’s MS Program and director of the Alberta MS Network. “I think that this is recognition for literally a lifetime of work. This is a very prestigious accolade and really, I'm humbled and also deeply appreciative.”

Every year, the university presents the $5,000 Killam Research Excellence Award to a researcher who has made outstanding contributions over a decade or more. Yong, member of the Hotchkiss Brain and Arnie Charbonneau Research Institutes, has published 310 articles that have been cited more than 20,000 times. He’s a fellow of both the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.

  • Photo above: Dr. Wee Yong with Killam Trustee Brenda Eaton, left, and UCalgary Provost Dru Marshall. Photo by JM Photography

Yong studies the interactions between the brain and the immune system in MS and glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumour. MS is caused when too many immune cells migrate to the brain and cause inflammation and injury. But immune cells also have a critical role in repair and recovery after a brain injury.

“In a sense, I'm playing with fire,” he says. “I'm trying to use the immune system to help with repair responses but not run into its injurious potential. I'm also trying to stop the immune system from producing the injury in the first place.” With glioblastoma, the tumour itself compromises the immune system’s ability to attack the cancer. Yong and his colleagues are trying to “remobilize” the compromised immune system to help fight the brain tumour.

Over the years Yong has made significant progress in understanding the immune cells in the brain. “We are slowly but surely marching towards the goal post,” he says. “We are at a state in which we are able to use some medications to try to either dampen neuroinflammation or beef up its beneficial aspect.”

Working with clinicians, particularly Dr. Luanne Metz, MD, and Dr. Marcus Koch, MD, PhD, at the MS Clinic, Yong’s lab has introduced medications to patients. Clinical trials on a repurposed generic medication for patients with brain tumours will begin soon with Dr. Paula de Robles, MD, and Dr. Gloria Roldan Urgoiti, MD. 

Yong is grateful for being able to work with clinicians and trainees in his lab. “I'm not in there doing all this work myself,” he says. “I cannot emphasize enough that a researcher is successful only because of the trainees that are part of the collaborative work. I rely on a steady stream of very talented trainees that come through and, in turn, they have graduated to bigger and better things.”

He’s honoured to be able to work in the field of neuroimmunology alongside other researchers and clinicians. “I look forward to going to work every day,” he says.  “Over the course of time, we are making dents into understanding and trying to overcome some diseases. So I feel very privileged to have this opportunity to do the things that I do.”